“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Attributed to J. Krishnamurti
The search for authenticity is an ennobling quest. The early Buddhist teachings value highly the ‘true person.’ Yet, we are born ignorant of what is going on here, and are introduced to ‘what is going on here’ by people who haven’t clarified the matter themselves. Truth isn’t loved in societies generally.
‘Consensus trance’ is a term I got from consciousness researcher Charles Tart. When I became acquainted with his work, Tart wasn’t centrally interested in death. He was more interested in what unusual states of mind could tell us about human possibilities.
Later he wrote about near-death experiences and was interested in what happens to consciousness after death. What happens after death is not a core interest in my project (though later, I’ll enquire into the usefulness of the rebirth concept).
However, his idea of the susceptibility of children to hypnotic suggestion, grabbed my attention. It offers modern support for how consciousness gets so dissociated from nature generally and from its own nature.
In Tart’s book Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential, he made a credible case for concluding that children are inducted by their parents – the unwitting agents of their culture – into a ‘consensus trance’ which reflects the states of consciousness approved in their society.
Tart compared the suggestibility of children to the criteria for hypnosis suggestibility in psychology labs. Moreover, he suggests that parents can do things that no university laboratory would be allowed to do, by ethical standards: they can withdraw love, for instance, when the ‘subject’ is not co-operating; or worse, they can use physical violence to reinforce their lessons. His case was backed up by his years as a researcher at Stanford University.
In case you are interested in reading a stark description of the trance induction – of how our parents bring us into the consensus trance – then I recommend you read Charles Tart; chapter 10 of Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential. It’s chilling.
At the end of the chapter, he writes:
“But,” you might well say, “I don’t feel like I’m in a trance!” Of course not. We think of trance as something unusual, and our ordinary state as usual. We only realise we are in a trance state by reasoning about it… and/or by experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.”
And that is the purpose of mindfulness practice. ‘Experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.’ A person waking up “dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world.” (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). This means becoming independent of socity’s values.
There is a way forward. Once mindfulness is engaged there’s nothing – even trance – that isn’t a doorway to the real life, if we just turn our head a little in the right direction, or maybe start to just look out of the corner of our eye, at how we are really.
A place to start is just to entertain the possibility that being alive could be felt more authentically than it presently is; though, we might have to whisper it, because it’s still not common, being an authentic human.
A Story That Could Be True
by William Stafford
If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.
He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by –
you wonder at their calm.
They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”
A few decades ago, I had a friend who died of cancer. Let’s call her Milly. From the first, we had a basic kind of respect for each other; though we would clash occasionally. I didn’t understand it, then, but now I know that my arrogance triggered her. As a result, though we learnt to accept our differences, for some years we weren’t very close. Then, when she got cancer and she was dying, the relationship changed. Our conversation became real and beautiful. The presence of death brought out honesty and vulnerability in both of us.
I am reminded of her, because I’ve been reading a account of a mother screaming at her daughter during an argument, “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!” The narcissism of that attack is so obvious that I’d like to think that it’s a caricature. But, no – it really did happen.
So, what of Milly? On a summer day, months before she died, we were walking along a bushland track, reflecting. She shared that she had recently told her mother that she was dying; and through her tears she said that her mother had exclaimed: “How can you do this to me?!” I was shocked. No doubt her mother thought that she spoke from love; but I couldn’t see it. I still don’t. Why do we mistake narcissism for love?
A related instance is given by author Jeanette Winterson. Jeanette was sixteen, and her Pentacostal adoptive mother was evicting her – throwing her out for taking up with her second lesbian girlfriend. During the argument, Jeanette declared her wish for happiness – she wanted to be with her beloved, a female, because she wanted to be happy. Her adoptive mother’s response was, “Why be happy, when you could be normal?”
When I read that, I laughed. But, then I thought something like: “Hey. Hang on. That actually happened. A person was actually in such a condition of mind that could say such utterly ill-fitting words, and think them right.” Right where his youth Janet deserved understanding and care from her adoptive mother – right when she needed to be listened to – she got narcissism.
It might seem that these three vignettes are extreme; but what of less obvious reactivity in the face of the unwanted facts of life? We all have some level of narcissism. Milly’s other friends didn’t say out loud, “How can you do this to me?” No, instead, she told me: “They dropped away. They disappeared.” Without a word of explanation.
Milly was dismayed at the loss. Their reactions were a reflection of a self-absorbed mindset; and it wasn’t what she needed, right then. It would seem that they avoided her because of cancer and death. Sure, they didn’t say, “Why are you doing this to me?!’ but they may as well have. (Several years before, someone very close to me, when dying from cancer, told me: “Cancer tells you who your real friends are.”)
All these instances are on a continuum which reveals narcissism to be terribly normal. By normal, I mean statistically so. A glance at any newspaper, any day of the week, alerts one to the ubiquity of deluded self-centred views – narcissistic read-outs on life – which capture people and lead them to harmful behaviour. Look at our politicians’ grubby self-interest, their blatant fabrications and their grandiosity. The parliament is filled with selfish individuals, who can only read things through their biases.
The Buddhist analysis of this problem says that the problem is much bigger than a small class of ‘crazy’ people: it’s a species problem. A direct, contemplative investigation of ‘mind’ reveals everyday forms of narcissism; and, it has its roots in a lack of direct awareness of our organism. Due to this ignorance, we misperceive the nature of the mind. Hence, we live our normal lives on the basis of delusions about the organism’s reality. We see through filters, through a ‘glass darkly,’ and our relationships suffer concurrently. “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!”
Was it mentally ill for Milly’s friends to abandon her? Not conventionally so, of course. It’s merely fear; misshapen perceptions formed their fickleness. But we could ask, why aren’t such fears (with their attendant mental structures) considered, in this society, a form of mental affliction? That’s how the Buddhists see it. These distortions – aversion to a friend who has cancer, for instance – are not intrinsic to the mind. Why aren’t we addressing this at the national level? Well, simply because the delusions are statistically normal.
If a whole community has such delusions, one loses perspective; you find it hard to identify fear as mental concocted. Your perceptions present as real, and your fear and your hatred appear justified. Racism and homophobia are two areas where this analysis is powerful.
What what kind of sickness can it be then, when you are scared of people who have different skin colour, or a significantly different culture? Or, what kind of a sickness is it, when you are afraid of a person who has cancer? The answer that Buddhist is that we are sick with greed, hatred, and ignorance.
Without a culture of mindfulness and compassion, we can imperceptibly slide into mass delusions. Then, destructive attitudes become so widespread that they passes as normal. Nazi Germany is a case in point; and, Trump’s ‘America.’ (Notice, even the name ‘America,’ as a designation for the U.S.A, is a narcissistic insult to all the other nations of the Americas, north and south.)
So, where do we go with such a widespread problem? A significant portion of people throughout the world are currently under the sway of xenophobic afflictions. These attitudes are the stuff of minds – we have to investigate what it means to have good mental health. Why aren’t the policies of far-right’s (such as One Nation, in Australia) being discussed as a matter of our community’s mental health? Is it because we might have to begin at home? It is far harder to look at one’s own mind, than to blame other’s for our dissatisfaction.
I thought Milly was a hero, given the brave way she approached her death. Moreover, she spoke without ill-feeling, when addressing the reactions of others to her disease and impending death. A warrior; and one of my teachers.
Though one conquers in battle
a thousand times a thousand men,
one is the greatest war-hero
who conquers just one’s self.
– Dhammapada, verse 103. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
(Sallatha Sutta: Samyutta Nikāya 36.6)
Translated from the Pali by Christopher J. Ash
[The Buddha:] “Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person experiences pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and feelings neither pleasant nor unpleasant A well-trained student of the noble ones also feels pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and feelings neither pleasant nor unpleasant. So, what difference is there between the well-trained student of the noble ones and the untrained ordinary person?”
[Practitioners:] “Because we depend on the Flourishing One’s teachings, it would be good if the Flourishing One were to personally explain. Hearing this, we will remember it well.”
“Then listen carefully. I’ll explain.”
“When an untrained, ordinary person contacts suffering, they fret and become wearied. They lament, beat their breast, and fall into delusion. They have two pains – physical and mental pain. Just as if someone were to shoot another with an arrow, and, right afterward, they were to shoot that same person with another arrow. Hence, the victim would feel the pain of two arrows. In a similar way, when in contact with a feeling of pain, the untrained, ordinary person frets and becomes wearied. They lament, beat their breast, and fall into delusion. So, they experience two kinds of feelings: the bodily and the mental suffering.
“When they are in contact with suffring, they meet it with resistance. When they feel resistance, their (previously latent) underlying patterns of resistance become active. Touched by pain, they then yearn for sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the untrained, ordinary person does not know of any other escape from pain beside sensual pleasure. While relishing sensual pleasure, the untrained, ordinary person, relies on (previously latent) underlying tendencies to lust for pleasure. So, they can’t understand – in their experience just as it actually is – the production and cessation of these feelings; the attraction and the disadvantages of them; nor can they know the actuality of leaving this suffering behind. When they don’t discern these processes, they [likewise] dwell in ignorance of experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it merged with it. This, I say, is an untrained, ordinary person: a person tied to birth, aging, and death; one tied to grief, complaining, anguish, distress, and despair – a person bound up with dukkha.
“When a trained student of the noble ones contacts suffering, they don’t fret and are not wearied; they don’t complain or beat their breast; they don’t get confused. So, they just have the one pain – the physical, and not the mental pain. Just as if someone were to shoot a person with an arrow, and didn’t shoot them a second time. So the victim would feel the pain of only the one arrow. In this way, when a trained student of the noble ones contacts a feeling of pain, they don’t fret and aren’t wearied; they don’t complain or beat their breast; they don’t get confused. So, they experience the one kind of suffering; the physical suffering, but not the mental suffering.
“When in contact with pain, they don’t resist it. Not given over to resistance, then latent underlying patterns of resistance don’t possess them. And, touched by suffering, they don’t attach to sensual pleasures. Why? Because a well-trained student of the noble ones recognises the escape from suffering [that is other than] sensual pleasure. So, not relishing sensual pleasure, the well-trained person does not rely on the underlying patterns of sensual pleasure. Hence they see – in the experience as it actually is – the arising and cessation of these feelings. They see then the allure and disadvantages of these feelings. And they can know the reality of leaving suffering behind. As they know these processes, neither will they dwell in ignorance of experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while not merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it not merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it not merged with it. This, I say, is a well-trained student of the noble ones: a person separated from birth, aging, and death; separated from grief, complaint, anguish, distress, and despair – a person separated from dukkha.”
“So, this is the difference – the distinction, the distinguishing factor – between the untrained ordinary person and the well-trained student of the noble ones.
“A wise person, being discerning,
doesn’t experience a [concocted] feeling of pleasure or pain.
The difference, then, between the wise and
the ordinary person is one of skilfullness.
“For a person who discerns constructed dhammas,
clearly seeing this world and future worlds,
pleasant things don’t confuse the mind,
and unpleasant things don’t bring resistance.
“Passiveness and opposition are dispersed –
gone to their end, do not exist.
Having known the stainless and sorrow-free,
these ones understand thoroughly, beyond becoming.”
When we are identified with dukkha, we double our pain. In the sutta which I’m presently translating, the Nikaya Buddha is exploring what distinguishes a “well-trained student of the noble ones from the untrained ordinary person,” in respect of experiencing life’s pleasures and pains. If we understand this, we can transform our lives.
He says that we encounter suffering and naturally resist; especially by turning toward pleasure. By the way, when he says ‘sensual pleasure’ he means pleasures of the mind, too – not just of sight, sound, smell, taste, and the bodily senses. These five are what Westerners have been trained to think of as ‘the senses’; but, here, we include the pleasures of thinking, imagining and dreaming.
Furthermore, I should warn you that the point is not to live without pleasure happening – that’s not living – but the point is not to found our deepest well-being in what is changeable and connected with what is changeable. Being identified with what is changeable is a recipe for all the bitter dishes we are serving ourselves all over the groaning planet.
While we are untrained, we don’t know any better. So, in this next passage he goes into how our unaware approach to dukkha works; how our habitual patterns block insight, which is the key to freedom. He points out that if we depend on sensual pleasures, then we can’t have the requisite distance to see what’s going on, can’t have insight into the dynamics of our pervasive frustrations with life:
“While relishing sensual pleasure, the untrained, ordinary person relies on pleasure; and so they can’t know – in the experience as it actually is – its production and its cessation; its allure and its disadvantages; nor the actuality of leaving suffering behind. As they don’t discern these processes, they dwell in ignorance of their neutral experiences.” (Those which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant).
“Experiencing a pleasant sensation, they know it while merged with it. Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, they know it merged with it. Experiencing a sensation which is neither pleasant unpleasant, they know it merged with it.”
Then reminding us of what he’s doing here – inviting us deeper into training of the heart by naming the difference between the untrained and trained person – he finishes this part of his talk, by saying:
“This, I say, is an untrained, ordinary person: a person tied to birth, aging, and death; one fettered by grief, complaint, anguish, distress, and despair – a person bound up with dukkha.”
I am translating a sutta, presently, on the sad fact that we double our pain, unnecessarily. In Buddhism this is referred to with the simile of the ‘second arrow.’ The sutta, from the Samyutta Nikāya, is called ‘The Arrow.’ The sutta opens with a warning about the danger of grasping after limited escapes, in compensation for our raw suffering. There is a better way to be free of suffering.
The Arrow (Sallatha Sutta: SN.36.6)
“Practitioners, an untrained, ordinary person has pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences, and experiences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. A well-trained student of the noble ones also has pleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences, and experiences which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
“So, what difference is there – what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there – between the well-trained student of the noble ones and the untrained ordinary person?
“When an untrained, ordinary person contacts suffering, they fret and are wearied, they complain, they cry and beat their breast, and they get confused. So, they have two pains – the physical pain and mental pain.
“Just as if someone were to shoot a man with an arrow, and then, right afterward, they were to shoot him with another one. Hence he would feel the pain of two arrows.
“So, in the same way, when in contact with a feeling of suffering, the untrained, ordinary person frets and is wearied; they complain, lament, and get confused. Hence, they experience two kinds of feelings, the physical and the mental suffering.
“When they are in contact with suffering, they resist. So, given the resistance, they fall into latent underlying patterns of resistance. Touched by this suffering, they are then thankful for sensual pleasures. Why? Because the untrained, ordinary person does not know of any escape from dukkha beside sensual pleasure.”