Sunday, July 03, 2005

Breaking the Consensus Trance

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Integral Psychology (IP) posits a developmental model of human consciousness based on the work of developmental psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and Eastern contemplative practices. The upper right quadrant of the graph (above) represents the interior-individual aspect that IP covers.

The earliest developmental stages are all considered pre-personal or pre-formal. This means that the individual hasn't yet developed the means to think and act independently of cultural norms and roles. In Jungian terms, the person has not yet individuated. However, these stages are crucial in creating civilized human beings. It is during these stages that we learn our culture's values, mores, and beliefs. We adopt the prevalent worldview and accept its understanding of the universe and ourselves as individuals.

Two of the three monotheistic religions (Christianity and Islam, as practiced by the majority of adherents) are considered pre-personal in that they require this unquestioning conformity to dogmatic prescriptions for belief and behavior. Certainly not all those who follow these religions are operating at pre-personal developmental levels, but the center of gravity for both religions lies in the "mythic order" level of individual and cultural values, which is distinctly pre-rational and pre-personal.

I'm sure many readers will reject the notion that their chosen religion is pre-rational. The test would be in being able to prove or disprove the major tenets of one's religion -- are they testable or are they totally dependent on faith. Can one prove that Mary was a virgin, that Jesus was resurrected, that Lazarus was raised from the dead, that God is masculine? (I was raised Catholic, so these were some of my issues during my confirmation process.) By definition, belief in myth (and many Christian, Islamic, and other religious beliefs must be considered myth in the absence of proof) is pre-rational in all developmental models.

Some Eastern religions, and some more advanced elements of the New Age movement, consider the mythic order level of development to be a form of consensus trance in which all believers are required to hold the same views and beliefs. This trance state is maintained through fear of eternal damnation for straying from the accepted rules and roles. Nowhere is this worldview more prevalent right now than in the Middle East (radical Islam) and in the United States (fundamentalist Christianity).

However, all the world's major traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) regard consensus reality as flawed and in need of transformation. "Both Christianity and Islam describe our vision as veiled, while existential philosophers complain that conventional living is unreflective and superficial" (Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality, 25). All the world's wisdom traditions agree: we are barely out of our developmental infancy, and our eyes are still clouded with sleep.

The first step in breaking free of that trance state is to become self-reflective. Until one can critically examine his/her own beliefs, then there is little hope for changing them. The majority of meditative practices, East and West, as well as many forms of psychotherapy, teach the individual how to have an "observer self" -- an element of the psyche that can step outside the ego state and act as an impartial observer.

We can't change how other people view their world, but we can work to elevate our own consciousness one step at a time. Working to become more self-reflective, thus breaking the consensus trance, is an enormous step in the right direction.


An Exercise to Identify the Observer Self

The observer self is that aspect of consciousness which can watch us act like fools and stand back at a safe distance, shaking its head in disbelief. The observer is a deeper structure of the self-sense than the ego, closer to the actual Self at our core. It is capable of observing our behaviors with an even, unattached point of view. As such, the observer can help us see our wounded areas more clearly, without the interference of the ego and its desire to maintain the status quo. The observer self is an invaluable ally in personal growth that can lead us into higher levels of consciousness.

The following exercise, adapted from Roberto Assagioli’s disidentification process in Psychosynthesis and Ken Wilber’s meditations in One Taste, can help us detach from ego-consciousness and step back into the observer self. For each of the steps there is a mantra that some people find quite useful in detaching from each element of the ego-self.

Practicing Detachment

Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Take a few deep, centering breaths, allowing the body to relax. Closing the eyes can help focus attention. Feel the air moving in an out of your lungs as you breathe. Become aware of your body, its position, how your limbs feel, where you are holding tension. Become aware of your whole body and all the sensations it experiences. If you are comfortable with mantras, the one for this step is, "I have a body, but I am not my body." Repeat aloud or in your thoughts.

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Now leave your body and move to your emotions. What feelings do you notice? Are you bored, anxious, happy? Notice your current feelings, and then think about the most common feelings in your life. Do not dwell on those feelings -- just recall them and then release them. Mantra: "I have feelings, but I am not my feelings." This mantra works well as a reminder when you are angry or afraid that you are frozen in an emotion.

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Move from your feelings to your desires. Desires are those things that motivate us. We all have many things that motivate our behaviors, such as simplicity, comfort, quiet, money, health, or others. Observe the things that motivate you, but do not judge them. Simply call them up and notice them. Mantra: "I have desires, but I am not my desires."

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Now move to your thoughts. As each thought rises to consciousness, observe it but do not dwell on it. Then watch as the next one rises to replace it, over and over again. This is the state of consciousness most of us experience. However, we often get stuck on a handful of thoughts that return over and over again in our lives. Notice the pattern, but do not hold on to it. Notice the flotsam and jetsam of consciousness, the memories, the ideas, the fears, the opinions, and the ways you tell yourself who you are as a person. Mantra: "I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts." This mantra works in meditation to return a wandering mind to the breath.

Take three deep cleansing breaths. Finally, become aware of that part of you that has been observing your body, your feelings, your desires, and your thoughts. Who is that self behind all these realms of ego? The self is not an image or a thought, but a deeper essence. The self is at the core of our humanity. Mantra: "I am the self, a center of pure consciousness."

Having detached from the basic elements of consciousness, repeat the mantras: I have a body, but I am not my body; I have feelings, but I am not my feelings; I have desires, but I am not my desires; I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. What is the source of your awareness? Who is the "I" who observes but cannot be observed?

Whatever comes into awareness is fine. You are none of those things, so just watch them pass like clouds across a blue sky. "And this witnessing awareness is not itself anything specific you can see. It is just a vast, background sense of Freedom – or pure Emptiness – and in that pure Emptiness, which you are, the entire manifest world arises. You are that Freedom, Openness, Emptiness – and not any itty bitty thing that arises in it" (Ken Wilber, One Taste, 88).

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