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Lifelines

AwakeningSoon after you were born your family got to work, training you into a well-behaved member of the tribe (a “good boy” or “good girl”). Although you were already related to others in the circle by genes or adoption, the process of turning you into “one of us” involved the force of culture, as distinct from that of nature. A human society is more than a collective for mate-pairing, reproduction, protecting the young, and sharing resources. Again, at the cultural level it is also a system of morality and ideology – an orthodoxy that shapes the consciousness of its members into a common agreement concerning the meaning of life.

You weren’t born with a preconception of life’s meaning. What something means is a matter of making numerous associations within a coherent reference system, between that thing and other things, from that thing to antecedent causes, symptomatic effects, and prospective ends or outcomes. The meaning of something is about linking it into a web of proximal and distant, similar and different, identical and opposite, previous and subsequent other things. Putting this mental picture together takes time and experience, as well as some pretty serious construction work. Your tribe didn’t leave you alone on the job. It provided you with the materials and tools that meaning-making requires, as well as the blueprints and inspection codes you were expected to follow.

All of this mind-shaping, meaning-making, and world-building activity of culture conspires to put its members into a TRANCE, which has at its core that common agreement concerning the meaning of life mentioned earlier. By definition, a trance is a “passage” or transitional phase to somewhere else. A hypnotist puts his subject into a trance so that he or she will unquestioningly obey the hypnotist’s suggestions. The collective culture puts its members under a similar spell, for the purpose of seducing them with the suggestion that they are separate individuals and incomplete without what the tribe has to offer.

As you slowly slipped under, the dream of your separate existence – variously judged as special, flawed, ignorant, unworthy, or depraved – started to take on the feel of reality. You really were all those things! As you looked out the window from your solitary confinement, you saw other egos obeying the same commands, which only confirmed and validated what you felt. The moment you gave your full agreement to the orthodoxy of egoism you fell completely into the DREAM.

Across the wisdom traditions of the world, the word “awakening” is widely used in reference to the event (or process) that leads to liberation. This term also carries a diagnosis regarding the human condition, which is that you are caught in the dream state of ordinary consciousness – and you don’t even know it. As you look around it all seems very real, when you are really just looking at a dreamscape of your own making.

Let’s spend a little more time with this concept, as it is easily (and often) misunderstood. We are not saying necessarily that what we see around us is only an illusion – not actually there, but only appearing real. Leafy trees, clouds overhead, other people walking about: these are real facts in the external environment, even if their appearance, orientation, and proximity to you are an obvious function of perspective and depend on your relative position as an observer.

These same objects take on an illusory effect when we add your appraisals of them as good or bad, pretty or plain, useful or worthless, yours or mine – all labels rather than actual properties, opinions and not facts, projections of yours onto reality and not at all real. Such judgments concerning the value and meaning of things are part of the fantasy you believe. They are ego extensions; and just as your sense of being a separate self is a construct of cultural orthodoxy, everything that carries this doctrine of separation into your general outlook on reality serves to promote the dream and keep you asleep.

So all those labels, judgments, and opinions are projected onto the reality of things. During childhood you were steadily lured into a trance, taught to believe that you are separate and special, that everything else stands in some relation of value and meaning to you. As this whole process was a slow seduction, you gave your agreement without really knowing what was going on. At times even now you may catch a glimpse through the veil hanging over your mind and be momentarily startled by the realization that your worldview is a cultural incantation – a tribal convention, a mental construct, a fantasy of meaning. But pretty soon the sleepy smoke dulls your focus, the trance takes over, and you are comfortably back in the dream.

The thing is, this dream isn’t all candy canes and rainbows. Inevitably, as in the movie The Truman Show (1998) where the bowsprit of a runaway sailboat carrying Truman (Jim Carrey) tears into the fabricated sky at the edge of the world he believed was real, the social conventions that keep the veil of meaning in place slip out of position or fall into tatters. It might be the sudden death of a loved one, the collapse of a career, the breakup of a friendship, or what I like to call “consumer fatigue”: the progressive exhaustion of hope in chasing fulfillment through something outside yourself.

The Western – specifically North American – ego is powerfully conditioned to regard itself as empty inside, entitled and demanding, and in need of being filled up. Of course there’s no filling-up to any kind of lasting satisfaction, for the simple reason that the consumer ego is a fast open drain.

By whatever means the disturbance comes, the deeper fall from dream into NIGHTMARE can be devastating. Value and meaning have collapsed or leaked away, leaving you disoriented and grief-stricken. For some people this might be the end; seeing no reason to go on, they take their own lives. A few will survive the nightmare and slowly repair their damaged dreamscape, adjusting back into an egocentric existence, though tempered perhaps by a sharp edge of cynicism. And there are those who will endeavor to spread their nightmare onto others, becoming apocalyptic alarmists, militant crusaders, violent terrorists, or convicted fanatics.

If you happen to find yourself in a nightmare, you may be closer to AWAKENING than ever before. As I’m using the term, awakening is not a destination but a process; in this way we might think of it as the reversal of a trance. Just as trance is a passage into the dream state, awakening is the path of disillusionment that leads out. Awakening is ongoing. It can come dramatically or by increments, but the process never ends. Enlightenment can make it sound as if an end has been reached, but once any attempt is made to construct meaning around it, what we have is another illusion and not the persistent commitment to clear-sighted awareness that awakening signifies.

Nightmares are conducive to awakening because the work of disillusionment – the stripping away of illusion – has begun against your will, without your consent, and despite your best efforts at keeping the dream intact. The dream itself has built-in safeguards against awakening, with its 24/7 propaganda machine and seductive promises. In a nightmare, however, the gravity of your loss and the distress of your situation veritably scream a call for change. Sometimes pain can be your most effective teacher, and grief your most precious companion.

Upon awakening you can see things as they really are – without labels, without judgment, and completely free of meaning. You realize that reality is one, everything is interconnected, and nothing (listen up, ego) is separate from the whole. You can relax into being, observe without opinions, and love without fear.

It’s not really about you.

 
 

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The Trance of Who You Are

Whether you are a theist or an atheist, the amazing fact that the universe is so providently arranged as to support the ignition and evolution of life, to the point where you and I are here sharing this thought, ought to inspire wonder, gratitude, and praise. This is where religion began – at the confluence of astonishment and thanksgiving. Its role in human culture for millenniums has been to choreograph society by a system of sacred stories, symbols, and rites, with the purpose of fanning the embers of inspiration and uniting the community in worship.

Really, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or an atheist, because the rapture of wonder and gratitude of which I’m speaking is not invested in any claim regarding the existence of Someone behind and in charge of it all. The sacred stories, called myths after the Greek word for a narrative plot, did early on begin to tell of agencies with elemental and personified form who conspire to put on the Big Show. This wasn’t an effort to explain the universe, as later interpreters would mistakenly assume, but to confirm what we still today – theists and atheists alike – can acknowledge as the gratuitous intention at the heart of a cosmos that is our home.

Our body is the evolutionary extension of matter into life and consciousness, not self-sufficient but outwardly oriented to the web of resources it requires to survive and prosper. This extroverted attention of the body engages with the sensory-physical reality around us, converting light waves into visual pictures, pressure waves into audible sounds, molecules into sensations of smell and taste, texture and weight (etc.) into how something feels in our hands. With an emergent intelligence capable of assembling all of this into an aesthetic unity of experience, our body serves as the perceptual vantage point in our contemplation of the universe.

When we open our frame of attention to everything around us, the view we entertain, along with our understanding of its fit-and-flow design, is known as our cosmology. And whether we interpret it mythologically or mathematically, we are not merely questing after and entering into dialogue with a universe “out there.” As we are inextricably involved in what we observe, our contemplation is itself an act of the universe.SpiralThat is to say, we are not only participants in the provident order of reality; we are manifestations of it as well. While the animal urgencies of the body naturally orient it outward to the resources it needs, a spiritual intuition conducts consciousness in an opposite direction, inward to its own grounding mystery. This aspect of ourselves is equally as primordial as our body, but its introverted orientation puts us in touch with reality prior to and beneath the threshold where it spreads out as the sensory-physical universe.

The mystical-intuitive depth of our own existence is what is meant by “soul” (Greek psyche) – not some thing living inside our body, the “real me” trapped inside this mortal coil, but the deep interior of consciousness, the ground of being itself. Whereas the myriad qualities of the universe beyond us inspire a cosmology of appropriate complexity and sophistication, the ineffable nature of this grounding mystery within us actually quiets our attempts to describe it, calling us to mystical silence instead.

In this way, the best religion will sponsor the research of its members in two directions simultaneously: outward into the most relevant and up-to-date cosmology, and inward to a mystically grounded psychology. The congruency of these two realms – outward and inward, body and soul, universe and ground – is portrayed in myth, revealed in symbols, and celebrated in sacred performance. Science and spirituality have always been the twin fascinations of religion, with its purpose taken up and fulfilled to the extent that it keeps us meaningfully engaged with the present mystery of reality.

The frustration of religion’s essential purpose – this dialogue of body and soul, self and community, society and nature – was introduced long ago with the emergence of a competing ambition, too preoccupied with its own agenda and pressing needs to care as much for the big picture.

Over time, ego’s self-involvement would come to command the focus of just about everything from religion to politics, commerce to lifestyle, philosophy to art. The archaic and long-standing function of religion in reconciling consciousness to the provident universe and its own grounding mystery underwent a profound change as its purpose got reassigned to individual salvation.

What we’re talking about here is the arrival and subsequent influence on culture of the personal ego – that opinionated, flamboyant, self-conscious, willful, ambitious, and deeply insecure center of identity called “I-myself.” Ego’s advent required a greater amount of social energy and attention, as its impulses were more likely to be misaligned with either the body’s instinct or the soul’s wisdom. A moral system of prohibitions, permissions, expectations, and responsibilities had to be created in order to keep its competing inclinations compatible with the general aims of tribal life.

It’s a mistake to assume that ego just appeared out of nowhere. If we observe ego development in children today, or do our best to remember our own adventure into personal identity, we will understand that it really is a lengthy construction project where the tribe (through the agency of parents, guardians, instructors, and other “taller powers”) shapes the personality according to specific social roles. In this way, cultural definitions of the well-behaved child, the good student, the proper husband or wife, the commendable employee, the model citizen, and the true believer are “downloaded” into the operating program of personal identity.

At first, the roles and associated rules need to be imposed on the young child and reinforced through consistent discipline. With maturity, however, the individual will self-consciously enter into numerous identity contracts with the tribe where rewards are not so immediate as gold stars or pats on the head, but may be sublimated, delayed, or even deferred to the next life. Eventually religion took on a role of its own as moral supervisor, mediator of atonement whereby sinners could be rehabilitated to good standing in the community, and keeper of the keys to whichever final destiny the ego deserved.

All of this effectively pulled consciousness out of dialogue with the provident universe and its own grounding mystery, into a spiraling trance where the individual is bound to tribal orthodoxy, trading freedom now for security later, but also forfeiting the living communion of body and soul for ego’s final escape to divinity.

Spiritual teachers like Siddhartha (the Buddha) and Jesus (the Christ) understood that deliverance from this trace of who you are is the true salvation.

 

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Reality Choices

Anderson: “We have to make choices from a range of different stories – stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are, about who we are – and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices – although many of us try hard, and with some success, to conceal that from ourselves.”

Another of my favorite authors from seminary days is the sociologist Peter Berger, whose book The Heretical Imperative explores this postmodern necessity of choosing the worlds we live in. The word heresy – which conjures up images of papal excommunications, the famous Scopes trial over evolutionary science in the school curriculum, and my own experience inside a Calvinist-Reformed denomination – simply means “having to choose.”

A heretic is someone who acknowledges the reality of options, along with the consequent need to choose between or among them. From the vantage point of orthodoxy, the heretic is dangerous not just because s/he makes the wrong choice, but because s/he might encourage others to think that they have options, too.

My own denominational background would never acknowledge post-theism as a theological option for true believers. There’s too much history, too much mystique around sacred sources (e.g., the Bible and the Standards of Faith) to permit even the consideration that our personification of god might be more about us than about the real presence of mystery. The good people in the pews on Sunday mornings must be reinforced in their dogmatism. All other ways of representing the mystery – or the choice of not representing it at all – must be condemned as wrong.

But as Anderson points out, we can’t get by anymore without having to make choices. And it’s not the choice between The Right Way and all possible wrong ways. Many of the optional paths lead into very perceptive, coherent and responsible lifestyles and worldviews.

Our postmodern predicament is having outdated worldviews “behind” us, as it were, in the traditions that have shaped our history and identity as tribal members, while “ahead” of us are all these different (contrasting and incompatible) worldviews competing for the emotional currency of our belief.

Behind us is singleness of vision – the “correct thinking” of orthodoxy – while in front of us is this marketplace of rival “software” vendors peddling their exotic thought-forms. There’s at least the illusion of freedom ahead, but for many the security in a one way/right way mentality is too valuable to give up.

We don’t want to admit that we have a choice, because if we do we might be asked to justify our selection. Frankly, most people don’t want to think that much – especially about spiritual things, which really means metaphysical things like god and the soul. Besides, according to the Tradition we must rely on revelation when it comes to such matters, and who do you think holds the keys to that? Long ago god left us with the Bible, and thankfully we now have the scholars and preachers to tell us what it means.

But what scholars and preachers? You have only to step out of one church and into another – of the same denomination even – to realize that options are inescapable and the “obligation” to choose ever-present. Of course, you can bury your head in the sand of one tradition, but even there you will be confronted with a story of differences, dialogue, compromise or dissension. Very human choices, all along the way.

For a long time – we’re talking many hundreds of years – the custodians of cultural orthodoxy were successful in convincing tribal members that the way they saw things was the way things really were. This was easy to do since the custodians themselves (scholars, priests, lawyers and magistrates) were under the same spell. Looking out on reality, why wouldn’t you assume that how things seem to you is the way things really are?

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

We are coming to understand, however, that worldviews are stories about reality, and that every story is told from a very particular vantage-point. Each possible vantage-point offers only a limited perspective on reality, and whoever steps into that space brings with him or her a dense filter of personal assumptions, ego ambitions, and intellectual commitments.

Every time you change your position in reality – just stepping out the door and into the street, for instance – you are making a choice whether or not to believe the story you have been telling yourself up to that point. Actually, if you had the vision for it you would see a complex web of stories connecting and crisscrossing in such fine detail as to comprise a veil between your mind and reality.

Perhaps this veil is itself your mind, who can say?

If reality is a mystery, then maybe every vantage-point is at base just a few very simple questions: What is IT? How does IT feel? What does IT mean? Our efforts at answering these questions are the stories we tell, and the worlds we inhabit are made up of countless such stories. Yes, our worlds are made up. This discovery is what inspired the postmodern movement.

For more about IT, see my blog at http://braintracts.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/it/

Once you realize that you have no choice but to make choices, that you make choices by telling stories, and that your view of reality (your world) is nothing but a dense web of stories, what comes next is the doubt whether it’s all worthwhile. If there’s a good chance that IT is not exactly as you think IT is, then what can you count on?

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s up to you. You will have to decide. Choose wisely.

 

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The Trance

Kierkegaard: “There is an ignorance about one’s own life that is equally tragic for the learned and for the simple, for both are bound by the same responsibility. This ignorance is called self-deceit.”

Each of us, regardless of our ethnicity, class, sex or education level, is living a lie. Well, maybe not an intentional lie, but at least a good game of “pretend.” We were great at it as kids, dressing up and role-playing adult situations. Then we passed through a phase called adolescence, when adults suddenly became boring, stuffy and oppressive. When the time came and we stepped into our own social responsibilities and long-term relationships, pretending was in again – but now, oddly enough, it’s “the way things really are.”

If we’re not careful, this adult pretense can occupy us for at least a lifetime – some Hindu religions believe it takes several turns of the life-wheel before we even stand a chance of waking up from the trance. In the Christian West, you have one crack at it. If you don’t come to enlightenment before the lights go out, too bad for you. There are no remedial classes.

We’re talking about ego, of course – your personal identity as shaped by experience and social conditioning. You may actually believe that you are a 21st-century, white, middle-class male (oh right, that’s me) who carries a membership card for this club, this party, this denomination. To the degree that you are totally sold-out to these tribal affiliations, you are deceived. And who is deceiving you? Ah, there’s the rub: it’s you. You are being deceived by one part of yourself to believe that you are all that.

Ego links us into a social niche which provides us a role to play and a mask to wear. This is who you are in this circle, we are told, and things will go better for you if you play by the rules. And why wouldn’t we? Acceptance, approval, recognition and respect – all the forces that go into constructing a “good boy/girl,” a “good husband/wife,” a “good Christian/whatever” – seem like worthy pursuits and high standards.

Life in society for the ego is a long line of such identity contracts, each one requiring its own mask and role to play. The longer we’re in the game, the added layers and facets of who we are effectively bury and pull attention away from what we are. Eventually you are the suit you’re wearing. In his interview with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth), Joseph Campbell cited the Star Wars character Darth Vader as the archetype of a human being who has gotten so wrapped up in his social role, as to lose the capacity for life apart from it.

This is what Kierkegaard means by self-deceit. While the probability increases with the length of time spent in the masquerade of culture and tribal life, this loss of soul through the captivation of ego happens to young and old alike. In fact, much of conventional psychotherapy involves some type of regression work where the client is guided back into childhood when a primary role of victim (abuse), orphan (neglect) or slave (control) was forced on them by their family.

Now as adults they continue to suffer with anxiety and depression in that part of their personality called the “inner child” where issues of trust, intimacy and power are hooked. Their present relationships aren’t working and they can’t seem to break out of the looping scripts and scenarios that so defined their early life – and who they are today.

While conventional psychotherapy works on the horizontal time-line of the client’s life story, there is another axis that intersects this one: the vertical present. At any moment, the realization can dawn that “I am not the roles I have been given or that have been forced on me; right now I am free to be my authentic self.”

Variously called enlightenment, revelation, or disillusionment – depending on the degree of pain involved in dis-identifying with the suit/mask/role – such experiences are truly transforming. They are not about working with or around the developmental hang-ups of ego, but rather opening up to the deeper resource of the client’s spiritual life (soul).

In the meantime, barring any disturbances, your ego can carry on, fully entranced and sufficiently self-deceived. Kierkegaard was fairly notorious for his attempts to shock his fellow citizens out of their zombie state, as when he cut his pants at mid-calf and walked the town. Egads! Sometimes just a small change-up can be enough to make people look twice and start to wonder. He wasn’t trying to throw social fashion into an upheaval, but to creatively remind us that our social identities are chosen and put on every day.

Here’s a way of looking at it. Reality is a swirling, dynamic and ineffable mystery that supports your existence in each passing moment. Your world is a construction of meaning, spun and stretched across the abyss like a spider’s web. A good part of it – think of the radial strands that anchor this web-world and give it stability – is the work of your tribe, culture and race. These are the “big ideas” and “ultimate concerns” for which generations of your ancestors have lived and died. Now it’s your turn.

But occupying the web of meaning requires that you step in at specific “locations,” and these are your principal roles. Your roles link you to other players in the web, and communication between roles generates and sustains the shared world of society. In a particular role you have several energy-masks you are allowed to wear, each one serving as a filter for self-expression and social attachment.  The number of masks (think of these as moods or modes of interaction) defines the range of identity you are permitted in a given relationship or scenario. Playing by the rules is very important at this level, and your tribe enforces a moral code intended to keep everyone in line. So far, so good.

Now just play this whole thing in reverse – from relational masks to social roles to tribal rules and finally to the general picture we have of “the way things really are” (our shared world) – and you can get a sense for how entrancing it all is. You may believe that you have absolute freedom to be who you are (and this is part of the illusion), but each mask is ultimately tied into a cultural worldview which is generations or centuries deep.

Yes, the mythological god has a critical role to play in all of this as well. But notice, culture has given the grand architect and moral supervisor of the universe only a limited number of masks to wear. It’s all very well managed.

… until someone wakes up from the trance.

 

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