“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 person should not give himself away. He should not relinquish himself.” – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Devasamyutta section, of the Samyutta Nikāya
Given all this, I have decided to dialogue with the texts, and not place my greatest reliance on some supposed historical Buddha. So, when I am saying where I learned something, then I will refer to the Nikāya Buddha, the Lankavatara Buddha, the Diamond Sutra Buddha, the Surangama Buddha, and so on; and my reader will not be confused about my Buddha, at that moment. My relationship with the Nikāya Buddha has spanned all my Buddhist life; it’s my favourite textual territory. Yet, in the early seventies, I learned a lot from my dialogue with the Lankavatara Buddha. And in the mid-seventies I learned a lot from the Surangama Buddha and the Diamond Sutra Buddha.
One reason why I chose this way of speaking, apart from the problems outlined earlier, is that I noticed that I would use the phrase “Buddha said…” to claim legitimacy for my views, whether the view was soundly based in experience or not. I’d use the name ‘Buddha’ to bolster my arguments. This is a kind of seduction, and so, upon discovering this, I abandoned the practice. And, I see other teachers arguing (sometimes fiercely) about what the Buddha said, as though they could know.
(By the way, in case you don’t know: ‘Buddha’ is a descriptive term, applied to a class of beings. It is not a proper name. What does it describe, then?
In the Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha says he is not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor is he a man. After perusing the etymology given in the Pāli-English Dictionary, I’ll accept ‘awakened’ as a reasonable translation.
Gotama was one in a line of Buddhas. By the end of this project, we might have a clearer idea of what this means, but for a start,: ‘not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor a man’ means he or she realizes that they are inconceivable. More on this later.
Whose victory cannot be undone, a victory not worldly:
by what path could one ruin an awakened one,
whose field is trackless, immeasurable.
– Dhammapada, verse 179. Translated by Christopher J. Ash)
So, back to our topic: Instead of saying ‘Buddha said…,’ I might say: “This is how I’ve understood the teachings; and, these are the set of texts which I hold up against my experience, to see if they can carry forward my life. In such-and-such a text, the Nikāya Buddha says…” I dialogue with the texts, and don’t claim to know what the historical Buddha said, thought or taught. That would not be a legitimate way to speak.
One further issue is whether one’s experience validates the texts, or the texts validate one’s experience. I would say it is ultimately the former. In respect of the latter, the texts may agree with my experience, or they question my experience (which I can be grateful for). And, they can only validate experience if I bestow some authority on them, which I can’t prove they have – except by appeal to bodily-grounded experiencing.
I think that would be an abdication of human responsibility, to grant the textual tradition the power to judge one’s experience. Nevertheless, my learner’s move is to grant them a provisional authority, and see in what direction my experiences change with that gesture. That’s why I talk, mostly, about the Nikāya Buddha, because I mainly use those texts to do this. They have proven to be profound guides.
My original blog morphed along the way, to become a dialogue with the earliest Nikāya Buddhist teachings on death. It seems that these texts are as close as we can get to the earliest Buddhist teachings (when augmented by similar texts in Chinese, called the Agamas). I began, part-way along in this project, to approached the Nikāyas with the questions: What did the Nikāya Buddha teach about death and dying? Was it of any interest to him, to live with full consciousness of death? Did he suggest some kind of preparation? And, as well – but, incidentally – I asked: What of the rebirth issue (a topic which brings controversy in modern Western Buddhism)?
(For this edited version of the original blog, for coherence, I bring in the theme of the Nikāya Buddha’s approach somewhat earlier than I did in 2015-16.)
Caring attention is the deathless; inattention is death.
The attentive do not die; the inattentive are as though dead.
– Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
I heard recently of a five-year-old crying in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” Conceiving he would die, he conceived the cessation of his ‘I.’ In another instance, I saw a video of five-year-old, inconsolable because she realizes that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; going to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she keens. By conceiving of a yet-to-come, she anguishes over the loss of what-is. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute,” she cries. It’s unthinkably painful – he won’t stay the way he is. Then she takes it further. Through her tears, she laments: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!”
These two instances got me thinking about other occasions when I’ve heard of children expressing that particular anguish. Most of us in the West (if not all) have a disowned child in us just like that, a child who once lamented, aloud or inwardly: “I don’t want to die.” If, as children, we spoke it out loud, the adults around us didn’t know what to say and likely only feed us the usual, meaningless, placatory cover-ups.
After all, they had not come to terms with the inevitable fact of death, either; so how could they have helped? They were uncomfortable in their lack of capacity to answer us. At best, due to their love, they touched into a pool of pain, helplessly witnessing the anguish of our innocence. Perhaps they treated our existential dilemma as cute (and videoed it). The little girl in the video – her father dismissed the experience, saying that she had a breakdown. My point is, the fact of death is not usually explored carefully, nor acknowledged openly.
All in all, adult fear of the subject aids children to create disowned parts of themselves. They get on with growing up, and learn to hide the inconsolable lament away. In our culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matters of death, separation and loss. We avoid encountering the natural realization that death separates us from what is ever, ever so dear to us.
Edna St. Vincent Millay names the suppression of existential anguish. The middle section of her poem, Childhood is the Kingdom where Nobody Dies has the following lines. After acknowledging that cats die, she then says:
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
— mothers and fathers don’t die.
It’s unthinkable – but, what kind of ‘unthinkable’ is that? How big will we let the unthinkable be in us? How come we aren’t talking to each other about this, now that we’re grown? How come we aren’t learning to have our feelings about this? How come we aren’t wondering more openly, fully, together, “Who or what dies?” (That, by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books: “Who Dies?”) “The attentive do not die.” What did the Nikāya Buddha mean?
How come we aren’t rushing with open arms toward the exploration of consciousness, that incredible unfathomable presence of knowing which resides in the human heart? Are we afraid of a meltdown? What will melt down, break down, or otherwise dissolve?
Why aren’t we exploring these questions? One answer is simply: the sheer momentum from years of turning the other way. “Don’t think about unthinkable things” is a rule. We humans are amazingly adept at compartmentalizing, so the unresolved encounters with the big questions get walled off (the dynamics of which walling-off, I’ll go into later). So, my point here is that childhood training helps the broader society’s ‘Don’t-Think-the-Unsayable’ project.
So, publication of Stephen’s A Year to Live was a brave counter-cultural service. By opening up the conversation, by bringing the hidden to light, we can increase the richness of our ordinary daily experience. If we have cultivated the habit of inattention, how can we be grateful for and nurture the good in us, in a grounded way?
I don’t think that the little girl in the video had a breakdown, at all. I think it perfectly healthy that she spoke her heart out clear as day (and night): “I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!” Maybe, if those feelings could be received deeply by those around her, and flow through her, then, ten, twenty or thirty years later, she could settle down to the life-expanding koan: ‘Who dies?’