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Life Outside the Consensus Trance

QI and Trance

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.

 

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The Human Path

Full Picture EvolutionHuman beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.

Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.

As far as we know, only human beings have egos.

My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.

Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.

These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.

Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.

Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.

This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.

But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.

As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.

It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!

One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.

When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.

Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.

My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.

Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.

 

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Second Birth

The higher religions share many things in common, even as devotees strive so desperately to promote what makes theirs distinct and superior to the others. These common elements are emphasized and celebrated in the more mystically oriented currents, while the orthodox mainstreams either downplay them or interpret them tightly around their core doctrines.

Mystics of all religions tend to resonate with the myths, symbols, and ideals of spiritual life regardless of cultural origin or theistic attachments. They seem to have an ability for seeing through the historical conditions and local inflections that make one religion so different from the others. And while this depth-vision of theirs commits them to a stance that is commonly condemned as heretical (which it is), blasphemous and atheistic (which it isn’t), mystics aren’t really so interested in challenging doctrines as they are in seeding human transformation.

An example of something you’ll find across the higher religions is the metaphor of a “second birth,” which is said to conduct the believer into a new mode of being characterized by expanded awareness, a transpersonal orientation, and a profound intuition regarding the unity of existence. Whatever it may be called – metanoia (new mind), satori (true sight), buddhi (awakening), or the more common enlightenment – this idea of breaking through to a more grounded experience of reality (the way things really are) is the central insight.First_Second Birth

In the present post I offer an interpretation of this “second birth” experience, using the terms that have become important in my ongoing explorations into human transformation: body, ego, and soul. Critical to my use of these terms is an effort to redefine them as names for distinct “mental locations” of consciousness rather than separate parts of a human being.

Body and soul, for instance, are not from two different realms and yoked for the length of an earthly lifespan, only to uncouple and go back to their separate realms. Instead, and more in line with a postmodern reading, “body” and “soul” name distinct mental locations from which consciousness engages the surrounding sensory-physical environment (as body) and its own grounding mystery within (as soul).

Ego introduces a third term, which I take as literally introduced (inserted) into the primary duality of body and soul. Indeed the popular separation of body and soul as opposing forces is actually an ego delusion. By inserting itself between the mental locations of body (outward oriented) and soul (inward oriented), ego pushes them apart (as parts) and then gets caught in its own illusion.

Interestingly enough, this illusion – and to the extent that an individual is utterly entranced by it, this delusion – is a necessary step in human development. Society (aka “the tribe”) must work to shape an animal nature into an obedient member of the group, with all its roles and rules for getting along. Some of those impulses just need a little domestication, while others require stronger sanctions. But the individual submits for the most part, since security and belonging are the coveted benefits of membership.

My diagram above illustrates this insertion of the ego in that cultural workspace of the tribe, where nature is socially conditioned and personal identity is constructed. A physical (or “first”) birth delivered the individual out of a maternal womb and into a tribal womb, in which a sense of self (ego identity) will form. The demanded constraint on animal impulses and a socially required modicum of self-control are what eventually establish an ego identity above the body (often represented as a rider atop its horse).

We can distinguish at least two levels or phases in this process of identity construction, the first taking place inside a family system into which the individual is born or adopted, and the second involving cultural influences farther out. A family is more than just a group of people who live together and share a household. It is a present manifestation of deep generational codes, prevailing moods, and social reflexes that move individuals to behave in ways they don’t fully understand or feel capable of altering.

What we call “family patterns,” then, are the deep emotional conditioning that bind members in relationships of attachment and antagonism, perpetuating various co-dependencies and dysfunctions that make every family so wonderfully complicated. This correlates directly to the fact that ego identity is emotionally based, and it also explains why family patterns are impossible to fully understand.

Even if these primary relationships are abusive, the emotional bonding they provide can hold the individual captive – just as the entire family system is captive to its patterns – and unwilling to leave. What else is there? Where might a young child go for a better life? Outside the family is an even more dreadful danger: the loss of identity. We need to remember that the family is a second womb, and that escape of a “preterm” ego would result in a kind of social extinction, which is why it hangs on.

With time the individual engages the larger culture of his or her tribe. Long-standing traditions and conventions of a society are invariably rooted in a mythology of patron deities, cultural heroes, and legendary figures who secured the present world-order. These stories, together with their anchoring images and ritual observances, are summed up in my notion of “symbol systems” (see the diagram).

A tribe’s symbol system functions as a lens on reality, but also as a filter to keep out (or keep hidden) any threat to security, identity, and meaning. The intellectual horizon of meaning itself is maintained in the cultural worldview – projected, authorized, managed, and repaired by all those with a vested interest in its maintenance, which is everyone on the inside.

But the same spell of delusion is in force at this level as what we find entrancing the family deeper down, only in this case it is more intellectual than emotional. It grips down on the mind as powerful convictions concerning ultimate things: good and evil, life and death, sin and salvation. The intellectual certainty carried in orthodoxy has an anchor-line descending into the dark foundations of emotional security, which is where orthodoxy’s real authority lies.

Even when a doctrine no longer makes sense intellectually, due perhaps to a shift in worldview and a loss of specific relevance, a conviction will remain strong – indeed, becoming even stronger than ever precisely because of its opacity and sacred mystique. Since it’s so difficult to understand, it must have been revealed by god, so who are we to question it or set it aside?

By now you should be able to feel the full enclosure of this tribal womb where ego is conceived and develops. Hemmed in emotionally by family patterns (which of course the individual internalizes and will perpetuate in his or her own future family), as well as hemmed in intellectually by the symbol systems of culture, ego identity now has a fully constructed web to inhabit. With ego formation complete, the stage is finally set for a “second birth.”

But not so fast. Those deep emotional fixations and god-given intellectual convictions will not let go so easily. Let’s not forget what will need to be surrendered should the spell be broken. What could life possibly be like without security and certainty – and without the identity that these together define? This would amount to an “ego death” for sure! For many, the security of knowing the hell they are in today, along with the predictive certainty that it will be waiting for them tomorrow, becomes an inescapable contract of identity.

The tribe is also working hard to keep its construction project under control. Friendly warnings and more stern reprimands are issued to the one who asks the wrong questions, challenges the orthodox answers, or dares to look behind the curtain at what’s on the other side. The threat of condemnation and excommunication are all too frequently enough to send the ego back to its seat.

But it is here, in the throes of emptiness and disorientation, that a few (compared to the multitude that obediently fall back in place) find the grace and courage to step through the veil. Attachments and fixations are surrendered. Convictions break open and release the mind. It is finally understood that the so-called security of hell is really no security at all, and that the so-called certainty of heaven is really a distraction from something infinitely more precious and real.

New mind, true sight, awakening, enlightenment: the once-dreaded breakdown turns out to be a breakthrough to a higher mode of being. The human spirit is liberated from its cage of identity, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, ego gives way to soul. Metaphors such as these endeavor to translate the experience of a “second birth” into the static nouns and verbs of language; but the experience itself is ineffable, beyond words.

Only after dying to ego and being resurrected as soul can the individual look back to see that those same symbol systems, which seemed so categorical from inside the tribal womb, are now transparent to a universal mystery. Gods and demons, saviors and villains, heaven and hell, sin and salvation, insiders and outsiders – each of these familiar components is part of a single drama that we carry within ourselves.

Or perhaps we should say, it carries us.

This was its design all along. Produced by the mythopoetic imagination and coming out a spiritual intelligence deeper and more ancient than the little ego can fathom, this entrancing web of illusion turns out to be the necessary architecture for our creative evolution. It is a bridge spanning the separation of body and soul – which, I should remind you, doesn’t really exist.

 

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