By Howard Rheingold
States of consciousness, from altered states to the state earthlings call “normal waking consciousness,” have been Charley Tart’s specialty for two decades. Surprisingly, Dr. Tart no longer calls it “normal consciousness,” and has substituted what he feels to be a more accurate term: consensus trance. To him, the idea of “normal consciousness” is the kind of convenient fiction illustrated by the famous folktale of “the emperor’s new clothes.” Together, human groups agree on which of their perceptions should be admitted to awareness (hence, consensus), then they train each other to see the world in that way and only in that way (hence trance).
In the 1960s, Tart’s groundbreaking scientific articles about hypnosis and dreams appeared in psychological journals, and in 1969 he published a collection of scientific articles, Altered States of Consciousness, bringing together laboratory studies of yogins, analysis of the brain-waves of Zenmasters, research into hypnotically induced dreams, lucid dreams, mutual hypnosis, and other borderlands of human consciousness that were beginning to attract scientific attention.
By his account, Charles Tart’s childhood interest in his own vivid dream life — a wondrous realm that everybody around him declared to be “unreal” — was a factor in his decision to become a psychologist. Each night, in the dream state, he discovered as all children do that he could visit magical kingdoms and do all manner of miraculous things. And like all children, when he told his parents about these dreams he was reminded that such experiences are “figments of the imagination.” If all his nocturnal adventures were not considered to be legitimate reality to the adults he told about his dreams, what was so special about being awake that made it more real? And why do people, when awake, seem oblivious of the existence of that other, magical realm of dream consciousness?
Experimental psychology was the vehicle Tart chose to pursue his questions about consciousness and reality. Although much of his early research involved dreaming, he was attracted to the mysterious altered state of consciousness known as hypnosis. Tart learned from his earliest experiences as a hypnotist that reality can be influenced far more strongly by one’s state of mind than most people suspect, most of the time:
“In inducing hypnosis I would sit down with a volunteer who wanted to be hypnotized,” Tart recalled. “We were presumably both normal people. With our eyes we presumably saw the same room around us that others saw; with our ears we presumably heard the ordinary sounds in the room. We smelled what odors were there and felt the solidity of the real objects in the room.”
“Then I began to talk to the subject. Researchers give the style of talking the special name of ‘hypnotic induction procedure,’ but basically it was just talking. The subject was given no drugs, was not in a special environment, had nothing external done to his brain — and yet in twenty minutes I could drastically change the universe he lived in. With a few words, the subject could not lift his arm. With a few more he heard voices talking when no one was there. A few more words and he could open his eyes and see something that no one else could see, or, with the right suggestion, a real object in plain sight in the room would be invisible to him.”
How can anybody distinguish, then, between dream, hypnotic trance, and reality? Dehypnotization, the procedure of breaking out of the normal human state of awareness, according to both mystics and hypnotists, is a matter of direct mental experience. The method can be learned, and that’s the nutshell description of the esoteric wisdom of the ages.
The clues from hypnosis research, experiments into the influence of beliefs upon perceptions, and teachings from the mystical traditions, led Tart to see how normal waking consciousness is the product of a true hypnotic procedure that is practiced by parents, teachers, and peers, reinforced by every social interaction, and maintained by powerful taboos. Consensus trance induction the process of learning the “normal waking” state of mind — is involuntary, and occurs under conditions that give it far more power than ordinary hypnotists are ever allowed. When infants are first subjected to the processes that induce consensus trance, they are all vulnerable and dependent upon their consensus hypnotists, for their parents are the ones who initiate them into the rules of their culture, according to the instructions that had been impressed upon them by their own parents, teachers, and peers.
Among the techniques prohibited to ethical hypnotists but wielded effectively in the induction of consensus trance are: the enormous amount of time devoted to the induction (years to a lifetime), the use of physical force, emotional force, love and validation, guilt, and the instinctive trust children have for their parents. As they learn myriad versions of ‘the right way to do things’ — and the things not to do — from their parents, children build and continue to maintain a mental model of the world, a filter on their reality lens that they learn to perceive everything through (except partially in dreams). The result leaves most people in an automatized daze. “It is a fundamental mistake of man’s to think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting room,” is the way Idries Shah, a contemporary exponent of ancient Middle Eastern mystical psychologies, put it (Seeker After Truth, Octagon Press, 1982).
If humans are indeed on the verge of realizing that we are caught in illusions while thinking we are perceiving reality, how do we propose to escape? The answer, Tart has concluded, could come in the form of “mindfulness training ” — a variety of exercises for elevating awareness by deliberately paying closer-than-usual attention to the mundane details of everyday life. Gurdjieff called it “self-remembering,” and many flavors of psychotherapist, East and West, use it. Mindfulness is a skill that can be honed by the right approach to what is happening right in front of you: “Be here now” as internal gymnastics. Working, eating, waiting for a traffic light to change can furnish opportunities for mindfulness. Observe what you are feeling, thinking, perceiving, don’t get hung up on judging it, just pay attention. Tart thinks this kind of self-observation — noticing the automatization — is the first step toward waking up.
Why aren’t the psychology departments of every major university working on the best ways to dehypnotize ourselves?
“We tend to think of consensus consciousness like a clearing in the wilderness.” Tart replied. “We don’t know what monsters are out there. We’ve made a place that’s comfortable and fortified, and we are very ambivalent about leaving this little clearing for even a moment.”
Most of the world’s major value systems, Tart contends, are based on an extraordinary state of consciousness on the part of a prophet, or a group of people. To Christians, being “born again” is an altered state of consciousness. Moses heard sacred instructions from a burning bush. Mohammed received the Koran in a dream. Buddha sat under a tree and woke up. Most of the values that guide people’s lives around the world today are derived from those extraordinary states of mind.
“If the sources of our values derive from altered-states experiences, and if we want to have some intelligent control of our destiny, we’d better not define these states out of existence. They are the vital sources of life and culture and if we don’t really understand altered states we’re going to live a very dispirited life. “
I asked him if he sees a way out of this dilemma of self-reinforcing institutional and individual trancemanship.
“Yes, I do,” he replied. “We are indoctrinated to believe that intellect is what makes humans great, and emotions are primitive leftovers from our jungle ancestors that interfere with our marvelous logical minds. It is possible to train people to base decisions on the appropriate mixture of emotional, intellectual and body-instinctive intelligence. Compassion and empathy are emotions, and I agree with the Buddhists that these emotions are highly evolved, not primitive. With enough training in self-observation, we can develop a new kind of intelligence to bear on the world. Everyday life is quite an interesting place if you pay attention to it.”