The psychologist Charles Tart coined the term consensus trance in reference to the shared assumptions and agreements that hold social organizations inside the rules of groupthink (Irving Janus, 1972). As an aspect of what he named a consensus reality orientation (CRO), it reflects the tendency we all have in adjusting our perspective and aspirations to what ‘the rest of us’ believe is valid or plausible.
Why do we so quickly dismiss insights and ideals that others in our relational webs don’t understand or approve? Granted, there is an obvious benefit to all involved (including us) when some of our harebrained ideas and odd inclinations are not adopted by the group. What a very strange world it would be if everything we conjured up in our daydreams and private thoughts automatically became coin of the realm.
But in this case I’m thinking more about those times when a truly winning notion dawns in our minds or a genuine discovery with transformative potential turns up in meditation – and we get punished, scolded, or shushed. It might even be something so noble as a desire to engage our relationships with greater mindfulness and honest love, but our different energy disturbs the routine and upsets expectations.
Individuals who are caught inside a consensus trance prefer the predictability of those routines. The definition of reality that everyone accepts, albeit unthinkingly, provides an enclosure where they feel secure. Even if (mind you) those routines actually perpetuate conflict and suffering, this familiarity makes them preferable to the insecurity of not knowing what to expect.
A quick review of what I presented in my most recent post will help us better understand how consensus trances get to be such compelling forces in our lives. We come into existence as infants kept alive by virtue of a visceral intelligence (VQ) operating autonomically below conscious awareness or control. This particular strand of our quadratic intelligence has but one overriding mandate: to keep our body alive. It manages the metabolic process of converting external resources (e.g., oxygen, food and water) into its own animal energy, and then converting this energy by an aerobic process into adaptive behavior. Key words in identifying our VQ’s driving preoccupation are security and control.
Our early years are really at the mercy of the family system into which we are born. Since no family or single caretaker is perfect – and can’t be expected to be, nor faulted for not being so – we all carry a bit of anxiety in our nervous system (the special province of VQ). This is simply because our survival and safety needs could not be promptly satisfied the instant their urgency declared itself. Such anxiety is another name for insecurity, registered as the default setting of our resting mood and positioned somewhere between mild apprehension and frazzled hypervigilance. In the emergence of religion, our insecurity is likely what motivated those earliest ritual petitions to a provident reality.
As emotional intelligence takes its cue and starts opening up to our surrounding conditions, this deep insecurity seeks compensation through relationship with what D.W. Winnicott called “transitional objects.” Not only cuddle blankets and pacifiers, but even our primary caregivers were pressed into service. By attaching ourselves to these things we had the inarticulate expectation that they would calm us down by making us feel safe, loved, and perfectly content. Key words in identifying our EQ’s driving preoccupation, then, are attachment and belonging. Mommy and Binky were attachments, and we belonged together.
As time went on, this EQ dynamic of attachment and belonging got translated farther out into the world of peer groups, romantic partners, social classes, political parties, and organized religions.
A bit delayed but coming to play as we acquired a code system of words (e.g., dog), schemas (dog-bone), and stories (the dog buried the bone), rational intelligence (RQ) began constructing a worldview that could orient and connect us to a more complex reality. While we learned many words and heard many stories (even made up some of our own), certain words and stories were weighted with special significance by our taller powers – who, after all, were in control and had authority to decide whether or not to deliver on our emotional need to belong.
Very naturally, our personal worldview became a constructed copy of theirs. Together we looked from inside our tribal system and out upon a reality that we could name, impose with our values, and claim to know. Key words in identifying RQ’s driving preoccupation are meaning and knowledge, making sense of it all by fitting reality into our logical boxes and mental frames. Step into any social system, from nuclear families to global cultures, and pretty soon you’ll start to get a picture of how its members construct meaning and certify knowledge – and, if you pay especially close attention, how they steer the mind away from discrepant views.
From that fairly brief description of the process whereby individuals develop their sense of self and reality, only a slight sideways step will land us deep in the tangle of a consensus trance.
Close-minded worldviews (RQ) envelop and safeguard passionate attachments (EQ), which in turn compensate for a profound and chronic insecurity in the individual nervous systems (VQ) involved. Indeed, a deeper and more severe anxiety (insecurity) corresponds to – we can confidently say it will inevitably produce – absolute convictions which members are willing to defend at all cost. (I say ‘willing’, but the psychological fact is that they lack the freedom and authority to choose otherwise.)
The upward sweeping arc of an orange arrow in my diagram traces our developing sense of self and reality as it comes to pivot around a separate center of personal identity named ego. Ego occupies a central position within the web of relationships that defines its tribe. Instead of regretting its arrival on the scene – which is actually a slow-and-steady construction process – and making ego the source of all our problems in the world today, we need to draw a critical distinction between a healthy ego (possessing the virtues of ego strength) and a neurotic ego. The latter is what conspires in the consensus trance.
A neurotic ego is profoundly insecure, codependently attached, and a fiercely defensive convict of those beliefs (aka convictions) shared in common with its equally neurotic alter (other) egos. In this condition and fully entranced, egos play out the scripts they inherited (codependency scripts are commonly transgenerational) or picked up in the urgency of staying in the game. Thankfully the trance condition that we regard as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary consciousness’ is not so neurotic and even possesses sufficient strength so as to allow for the possibility of breaking-through, or what is referred to across the wisdom traditions as ‘waking up’ or simply ‘awakening’.
In my diagram this breakthrough is represented at two points, one below (or deeper within) the self, and the other above (or farther beyond) the self. I have elsewhere distinguished these two points and the paths they open up as the ‘mystical turn’ (releasing self to the grounding mystery) and the ‘ethical turn’ (including self in the universal order), respectively. Because the mystical turn (at least as I’m characterizing it) engages in meditation practices that assist awareness in sinking into its visceral center of power, the grounding mystery can be identified as ‘the power within’. At the other end, an ethical turn elevates awareness into its rational center of truth and inspires a radical reconsideration of morality (how we should live) in view of ‘the truth beyond’ our self-serving values.
The benefits of such practice and reconsideration should be obvious. By breaking through to life outside the consensus trance we can free ourselves from the spiritual stupor of ordinary consciousness, going on to enjoy the flow of a fully functioning quadratic intelligence. In short, we can finally become fully human.
But then … we need to go back in there! My next post will be about the challenge of staying awake and living creatively inside the webs of relationship we call our individual worlds.