“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.”
Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
– The Nikāya Buddha.
Some people might think that the intention of ‘memento mori’ – of remembering death – is to make us think about what will come after we die. That would make it a ‘later’ thing, even if only a heartbeat away. But, remember, we are wondering, in this project, if the essence of death is an inner process; and, indeed, if that makes the essence of death right here, now.
If the presence of death is as close as your present breath, then it may not be the unmitigated disaster that your untamed thoughts have it; and there can be a sane and life-affirming way, a life-enhancing way, to find out if death is the ‘sacrament’ which some say it is.
However, if you take up the invitation (which the fact of death offers), there will be many voices – both inner and outer – who will try to dissuade you from disturbing the conventional trance of the false-’I.’ This is the consensus trance.
On the other hand, there’ll be those who’ll encourage you, when you need it. I remember, when despair about loss pierced me through in the mid-seventies, I had a chance meeting with a Catholic nun, one night, in a taxi cab. I asked her what she thought of the big questions, and of the quest for awakening. We talked for about half an hour, and I recall how she glowed with joy when she heard what my despair was about.
She didn’t lecture, try to convert me, or patronise me with ‘Christian’ advice. Instead she said, with palpable kindness, “Oh, yes, those questions are on the right track. Keep going. Don’t give up.”
Her warm heart gave me the support I needed right then, and the inspiration to treasure the journey. She affirmed that though such possibilities weren’t taught in the regular culture, there was a real transformation possible. I felt less alone, and fortified for the next steps in my journey.
It is tragic really, this trance going on right here in these bodies; tragic that we don’t encourage deep inquiry into experiencing. This is one reason why we don’t get our relationship with nature right, and are destroying our home, the planetary ecology that originally gave rise to us.
It’s tragic when we ask the big questions, and get nonsense in reply from others; nothing straight-forward. We should help each other with the truth, even when we don’t know truth. As poet Bill Stafford wrote:
“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
The way forward, though, is always right at hand, even if we don’t see it. It’s as close as eating, walking, running, laughing, sleeping, spewing, crying, feeling sad or happy, lying down, or turning-somersaults. It’s at the heart of our life – with its actual processes of seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching and feeling. At Sāvatthī, the Nikāya Buddha spoke about this to his bhikkhus.
“Practitioners, dwell with your heart well-established in the four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
“What are the four? Here, a practitioner 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. Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.”
– The Deathless (Amata Sutta: SN V.41) Translated by Christopher Ash
(In this translation, I’m not entirely satisfied with the word ‘psyche,’ because it’s a word rarely used these days – and it can be associated with occultism. Nevertheless, I’ll use it until we explore more of what ‘mind’ can mean, and until the Pāli word ‘citta’ can take over. I’ll go into these distinctions, later, an explain why I used it here.)
So, it bears mentioning again: I am not primarily investigating physical death. I see that as a simple matter. Culture can complicate it, but not stop it. Death will, from that side, will be easy. The body will do that well: heart stops, breathing stops, life-systems close up shop. From that angle, death is a breeze.
Can you feel as I say that “It will be easy”? Can you sense what happens in your body? While I’m not wrong, something’s missing in that picture, right? As an experience – that is, in the psyche – there’s more to it, right? And there just might be something we can learn to prepare us. And, along with that preparation for physical death, what physical death means to us while we’re living: that depends on how we’ve met our psychic death.
“Name has conquered everything,
There is nothing greater than name,
All have gone under the sway
Of this one thing called name.”
– Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, in Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled
Unskilful naming of experiences (unreflective speaking and thinking)cause us to get lost in a maze of our own making. We learn, when we are very small children, to name ’things,’ events, processes, and so on, in agreement with those around us. In doing so, we enter a particular kind of consciousness, a consensus trance. Consciousness now needs a new development – a waking up.
In the daily new you’ll note many reports of people doing cruel and insane things to others. All these people do their worst based on their ‘naming’; especially in the form of beliefs. Beliefs are based on naming, and maintain naming.
It is tragic really, that we are in a trance about what’s going on, here, and we don’t encourage inquiry into ‘This’(reality, life…) and the way we think and speak about it. So confused are we that when our children ask the ‘big’ questions about death, God, and heads, they get confusion in reply.
Reports that I get from people, in private conversation, show that children are often left feeling that there must be something wrong with them, for not knowing what is going on, not knowing how it really is – this seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching, walking, running, laughing, spewing, crying, and turning somersaults.
Exactly what is this? Few are the occasions when a child’s questions about what matters – the ultimate questions – are met with the respect that they deserve. It’s now acknowledged by some researchers (in Integral Spirituality) that children can have transcendent experiences (that is, quite conscious nonconceptual experiences).
They don’t have the conceptual development to integrate such experiences, but they have them. This means that luminous experiences pass by without them sharing with the adult world – they slip into the shadows, to await a crisis in adulthood.
As a result of the consensus trance, we have a majority of people die confused. Their spiritual line of development remains undeveloped. They don’t grow up in that respect, because our culture doesn’t have a shared language for this aspect of experiencing. I’ll go as far as to say that, the majority of people die without discovering the only thing worth discovering. (”The only game on the block,” as I heard spiritual teacher Peter Fenner say.)
My own life is an instance. My father told me (when I was about 26 years old) that when I was a child (younger than five), I would ask him “Who am I?” He said that I wouldn’t take any answer that he gave me. When he told me this, twenty-one years later, he added that he thought at the time that I wasn’t right in the head.
His ‘help’ (training me in the consensus view), of course, amounted to identifying my experience of myself with my body;, and with the roles of son and brother. He told me my name, as if that was the level of the problem that bothered me.
So, who wasn’t right in the head? The child who had come upon the enigma of the ungraspable immediacy of perception; or the adults who had learned, in their own childhood, to believe in their naming, and to identify with their narratives? The implications are enormous.
The Nikaya Buddha says to his companion in the spiritual life:
“If, Ānanda, consciousness were not to find a footing, or get established in, name-and-form, would there be an arising or origin of birth, decay, death and suffering in the future?”
“No indeed, Lord.”
-Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled
Some people are afraid that journaling about, and thinking about, death will invite death (in the sense of physical death). This can happen, if one’s love of death is greater than one’s love of life.
That might sound like a funny thing to say, if you haven’t thought of a ‘love of death.’ I think I first heard about it in one of Erik Fromm’s books. He, no doubt, adapted it from Freud’s ‘death-instinct’ and applied his Marxist analysis to it. Fromm believed that the central driving force was the desire to make up for a lack of authentic being and selfhood. He proposed that there is a love of death and destruction, related to this deficiency of Being. He cited Hitler and Stalin as instances of the love of death.
One might think that only very unfortunate people would have a love of death. If the circumstances of one’s childhood were terribly and regularly traumatic, one might be more prone than others to wishing for annihilation, this is true. My painful family life as a child certainly left me with such a legacy.
The contrast between love of life and a wish for death was brought home to me when I befriended a Vietnamese refugee three decades ago. He had been a soldier in the defeated South Vietnamese army. As a result of his ‘re-education’ by the victors he had been forced into slave labour. At night he was locked up in a cell, and was given only one bowl of rice a day. By day he worked in the fields, under guard, and the profit from his labour went to his prison warder. He found an opportunity to escape after a year, and made his way to Australia by boat. The last I saw, this former prisoner and refugee was running his own farm in South Australia.
When I met him (teaching English to migrants) I asked him, “While you were imprisoned, did you ever wish you were dead?” All these years later, I can still see his astonishment at the suggestion. I know now, having become more familiar with my mind, that I was expressing what I was carrying, what was unprocessed in me. To be sure, since childhood I have often confused the longing for a cessation of my torments with the cessation of my life. Slowly the practice of metta, meditation, mindfulness, Buddhist insight practice, and body-oriented therapy healed this.
Buddhism thinks of ego-desire as having three forms: desire for sense pleasures (kāmataṇhā), desire for becoming or existence (bhavataṇhā), and desire for non-existence (vibhavataṇhā). For instance, you are trapped in an uncomfortable social circumstance. You hope for an escape to something better (crave some other existence), you hope that your discomfort will go away (mild form of craving non-existence), or, you eat (crave sense pleasure). You get depressed and go to sleep, as a craving for non-existence. You can imagine the permutations possible.
So, back to taking mindfulness of death as a practice. Clearly, one’s motivation is very important. If I take the project as a means to knowing myself more deeply, for the benefit of all, then, if there are some unwholesome factors in the mix, with the appropriate motivation (especially a love of truth and a wish to benefit all beings), journaling about death will bring to light the ways that the wish for annihilation might be working in the me. It, of course, helps to have a sangha – a community – or to be practising with another positively-oriented person.
Tomorrow: ‘Authentic being and selfhood.’
At the Corner Store
He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious than this cold city.
I was thirsty and alone. Sick at heart, grief-soiled
and his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips,
Stacked – up beer boxes and immortal Jim Beam.
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
my whole cock-eyed life –
what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
Frustrated city dogs were yelping in their yards,
mad with passion behind their chain-link fences,
and in the driveway of a peeling-paint house
A woman and a girl danced to contagious reggae.
Praise Allah! Jah! The Buddha! Kwan Yin,
Jesus, Mary, and even jealous old Jehovah!
For eyes, hands, of the divine, everywhere.
One of my lovers once remarked that I had better give up the big quest for enlightenment, right then, because, she said, she could see me being a bitter old man, at the end of my days. I’m here to report that I’m old enough now, and I’m happy; and I’m glad that I didn’t give up that quest. Imagine going to your death unprepared for meeting true nature, unprepared to meet reality intimately, no-face to no-face. Death is the big wake up.
It is tragic really, that we are in a trance about what’s going on, here, and we don’t encourage inquiry into ‘This.’ So that when our children ask the big questions, they get nonsense in reply; or, at least, nothing straight. Reports that I get from people, in private conversation, show that children are often left feeling that there must be something wrong with them, for not knowing how it really is – this seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching, walking, running, laughing, spewing, crying, and turning somersaults. Exactly what is this? Few are the occasions when a child’s questions about what matters – the ultimate questions – are met with the respect that they deserve. It’s now acknowledged by some researchers, in the Integral Psychology and Integral Spirituality field at least, that children can have transcendent experiences, though they don’t have the conceptual development to integrate them. They slip into the shadows, to await a crisis in adulthood.
As a result of the consensus trance, we have a majority of people die confused. In the spiritual line of development, they don’t ever grow up. I’ll go as far as to say that, they haven’t discovered the only thing worth discovering. (”The only game on the block,” as I heard Peter Fenner say.) So, my childhood question – “Is there anything?” – is a question that has spurred my efforts to be clear in myself about what’s real and what’s not. I’m glad that this has been my life-long koan, because – when rightly handled – it has made my life really alive. It’s certainly not a “habit, like saccharine.”
My father told me (when I was about 26 years old) that when I was a child (younger than five), I would ask him “Who am I?” He said that I wouldn’t take any answer that they gave me. However, there he was sitting telling me this, and he added that he thought that I wasn’t right in the head. Their help, of course, amounted to identifying me with my body, and with the roles of son and brother; and telling that I had a name. So, who wasn’t right in the head? The one who had come upon the enigma of the immediacy of perception; or the ones who had learned, in their childhood, to identify with their narratives?
That was my father’s most repeated message to me throughout his life, that I wasn’t right in the head. No wonder that my entry into formlessness, Buddhist meditative state, was by seeing that I have no head. (Refer to the Heart Sutra for some help with this, and the work of Douglas Harding.) Not having a culture like Tibetan culture – where (before the Communist cultural destruction) if a child asked these questions she was recognised as having a gift – means that a lot of intelligent, sensitive children are not given the support they need.
Of course, I’m all up for an explanation of my childhood doubt which includes the possibility – nay, the certainty – that my ego-development suffered some blows, and that, as a result, I was confused about who I was. There’s something to learn from that perspective. However, it lacks a thoroughness of explanatory power, because it doesn’t include a depth of understanding of the fundamental luminous ground of awareness. How come, when the usual narratives are suspended, in child or adult, consciousness is non-local? Explanations in terms of neurosis don’t let the conventional society off the hook. They don’t get that the childhood questions around identity have a valid basis in existential realities, and that it’s a gormless world that Western children are born and trained into.
This all makes me reflect on the etymology of ‘education.’ It has a Latin origin: from educere. “To educe,” which in this context means to develop something from a latent state. So the meaning is to ‘draw out.’ You would think that a good idea would be to draw out the wisdom within the child, instead of instilling rigid patterns. Parents are, alas, far more often, agents of the culture, inducting their children into the consensus trance.
In case you are interesting in reading a stark description, in terms of trance induction, how our parents bring us into the consensus trance, then the rest of this article is about that, in the form of extensive quotes from Charles Tart, formerly a researcher at the University of Stanford. They’re chilling. I extracted them from his book, Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential.
In the last paragraph 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 realize we are in a trance state by reasoning about it, as we have done in this chapter, and/or by experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.
Think of it as like being in a dream. You can sometimes reason in your dream – that is, question your experience in the dream – and as a result, realise that you are dreaming. (That’s why the Tibetans encourage dream yoga – not to get mentally healthy, exactly, but to train for the states of consciousness between lives.)
The point, to me, of the poem in my last post is in those two words at the end: “We wonder.” We wondered together. The young man was in a hospice. And, he was dying – of that, there was no doubt. And yet, even then, it is still a matter of not knowing exactly when, and there is always the question of what it will be like. He couldn’t sleep at night for fear of it.
I was merely a few years older than he was – I think I was thirty-nine – but, I knew these questions were mine, too. I was healthy, but I had begun to contemplate the inevitability of death. It wasn’t a matter of only one of us having the illness.
What will it be like? Sometimes I’m plain curious, almost excited, like Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes:
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
Now, twenty-six years later, now that I’m old enough to die naturally, and after my cancer last year, I have been thinking more about this. ‘What will it be like?” The practice of dissolution of the elements is a wonderful one, and I have no doubt at all about its helpfulness – not only because it nurtures a joyous, wakeful life; but because it goes a tiny, tiny bit of the way in responding to the unanswerable.
However, the event will be unique. I sense its inscrutability regularly. “What’s it going to be like?” This question is a wake-up. I was healthy back then, but his question prodded at my sleep, rousing me from the slumber that is there in the trance of youth, in the trance of health, and in the trance of one’s life appearing not to be threatened.
“There are, practitioners, these three kinds of intoxication. What three? Intoxication with youth, intoxication with health, and intoxication with life.” – The Buddha, quoted in the Anguttara Nikaya.
But, here’s the more impelling point: When I realise that death is not readable, I feel the presence of my life in Nowness equally as mysterious – just as immeasurable. No clock-time can be brought to this moment. It’s just as unfindable as death. We are just as unable to ‘measure it out in coffee spoons.’ The breeze in the curtain, the sun-splashed wall, these are not findable, not objects thrown over there.*
This is the true wonder – the real doorway to the infinite. Death will be this moment.
* My OED tells me that ‘object’ means “lit. thing thrown before or presented to (the mind or thought)”
(The story about my name is a long one, and I’ll come back to that, in a month or so.)