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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        20.   Ways Out of Illusion

The discussion in Chapter 19 involves a value judgment that should be made more explicit: being in clear contact with external reality is good; being in poor contact with it is bad. This statement should not be overgeneralized: there is nothing wrong, for example, with deliberately becoming absorbed in a good movie and deliberately ignoring those aspects of reality that are inconsistent with enjoying the movie. It is undesirable, on the other hand, to believe you are in good contact with reality when you are not.
    I think most readers will have difficulty accepting Chapter 19 on more than an intellectual level. In some of our bad moments we may be unhappy with the ordinary d-SoC, but generally we seem pleased. Feeling happy is a function of a viable culture. If the culture is to survive, the majority of its members must feel contented with what they are doing and feel they are carrying out a meaningful function in life. Whether we generally feel happy or not, however, my personal observations and understanding of much of the research findings of modern psychology have convinced me that the analysis of ordinary consciousness as samsara is basically true. The present chapter is based on the assumption that it is true and is concerned with ways out of a state of illusion. It is not a guide to "enlightenment," for that is both inappropriate in the context of the present volume and beyond the reach of my competence.
    Why, then, would you or I or anyone want to escape from the samsaric state that is our ordinary state of consciousness? the exact answer varies for every individual, but in general there is a mixture of cultural, personal, and growth/curiosity reasons.
    A major function of a culture is to provide a consensus reality that not only deals adequately with the physical world about it but also produces a psychologically satisfactory life for the majority of its members. Each of us needs to feel that he belongs and that his life has meaning in terms of some valued, larger scheme of things. So every society has a mythos, a set of explicit and implicit beliefs and myths about the nature of reality and the society's place in it, that makes the activities of the people in that society meaningful. The mythos that has sustained dour society for so long, largely the Judeo-Christian ethic, is no longer a very satisfactory mythos for many people. Similarly, the rationalism or scientism or materialism that tried to replace the religious mythos of our society has also turned out to be unsatisfactory for a large number of people. So we are faced with disruptions and conflicts in our society has also turned out to be unsatisfactory for a large number of people. So we are faced with disruptions and conflicts in our society as people search consciously or unconsciously for more satisfying values. Our wheels of life, to continue the analogy of Figure 19-2, are not rolling along smoothly through our consensus reality. There are too many flat spots on the wheel that produce unpleasant jolts, and too many pieces of broken glass and potholes in the road of our consensus reality. So the ride is no longer comfortable.
    Personal reason for desiring a way out may involve initial poor enculturation, so we don't fit in well, knowledge of other cultural systems that seem advantageous in certain ways, and/or hope that a more satisfactory substitute can be found for our faulty culture. Various kinds of personal discontent make it difficult or impossible for an individual to find meaning in his life within the consensus reality of the culture. If he acts out these discontents, he may be classified as neurotic or psychotic, as a criminal, or as a rebel, depending on his particular style. If he acts out in a way that capitalizes on widespread cultural discontent, he may be seen as a reformer or pioneer. Or, he may outwardly conform to the mores of contemporary society but be inwardly alienated.
    Finally, a person may want to escape for what I call growth/curiosity reasons, a healthy curiosity or desire to know. He may be able to tolerate the limitations and dissatisfactions of the culture around him and cope satisfactorily with it, and yet really want to know what lies outside that consensus reality, what other possibilities exist. He may see the limitations of the current worldview and want to know what worldviews could replace it or whether it can be modified.
    I emphasize scientific curiosity in this book, the desire to understand coupled with realization that science is an excellent tool for gaining understanding. But even those of us who seek larger scientific understanding are also motivated by cultural and personal forces.


Are There Ways Out?

    A major intellectual theme in the Western world lately has been that there are no ways out. Seeing the irrationality and horror, the samsaric nature of much of the world about us, some philosophers have concluded that this simply is human nature and that the best we can hope to do is tolerate it in existential despair or try, without much hope, to do the best we can. Indeed, a person can use such despair as a prop for the ego by priding himself on his "realism" and courage in facing such a dismal situation. While I respect these philosophies of despair for their honest recognition that there is no easy way out, I am of an optimistic nature myself and cannot accept despair as an end goal.
    More importantly, my studies of people's experiences in various d-ASCs have convinced me that people can and do have vital, living experiences that are ways out. People have what Maslow {36} called peak experiences of openness, freedom, and belonging in which they feel they transcend, at least temporarily, the samsaric condition of ordinary consciousness. It can be argued that these experiences are just other illusions, that there is no freedom. But the belief that a way out does not exist may be just as illusory.
    When the search for a way out is triggered by discontent with the ordinary d-SoC, a common reaction is to blame your discontent on some particular aspect of yourself or your society and look for ready-made solutions. There are thousands of leaders and groups who have ready-made solutions to sell you or give you—a multitudes of-isms and-ologies. Give yourself to Jesus, join this commune, join political party X and remake the world, support the revolution, the truth is now revealed through yogi Z, eat your way to enlightenment with organic foods, find health and happiness with a low-cholesterol (or a high-cholesterol) diet, live in foreign country K where nobody hassles you.
    This is not meant to imply a blanket criticism of all communities, political and social ideas, or spiritual systems: indeed, in Transpersonal Psychologies {128} I attempt to promote the psychologies inherent in spiritual disciplines because of their great value. Most of the-isms and-ologies being offered contain valuable techniques for personal growth, ideas and techniques that can help you get out. But, when you motive for escape stems from a momentary discomfort with your present consensus reality, from a feeling that your wheel of life has too many flat spots and is hitting too many bumps, you may be seeking not radical change in your self as the root cause of your problems, but simply a more satisfactory belief system, a rounder wheel, and a nicely protected consensus reality that has no bumps. Any tool for personal or spiritual growth that humanity has ever devised can be perverted from its original function and used for simply making a person feel comfortable. Too often, a person is not really interested in looking more directly at reality, he simply wants his current samsaric wheel of life, the structures of his mind, overhauled or replaced with a new set that provides many good feeling sand hardly any bad feelings.
    Figure 20-1 is a revision of Figure 19-1, used to illustrate the concept of samsara. The content of the associational chains that are activated is altered, and the tone of the emotional energies is changed from negative to positive, and so the person's experience is positive. The labels on the figure make it self-explanatory. Still, all that happens in reality is that a stranger walks up and says, "Hi, my name is Bill." But this time the person, who we can call Sara, becomes extremely happy as a result and feels very good about herself. Yet she is as much in a state of illusion, samsara, as she was before. She has a set of internal structures, internal machinery, that make her feel good, but she is no more in touch with reality than before.


D-ASCs as Ways Out

    Since the ordinary d-SoC is the creator and maintainer of consensus reality on a personal level, and since the sharing of similar, ordinary, "normal" d-SoCs by others is the maintainer of the consensus reality on a social level, one way out of samsara is to enter a d-ASC, spend as much time there as possible, and get all your friends into that d-ASC too. You would choose a d-ASC or d-ASCs you valued, where you felt "high." To many people today the solution to the discomfort of current reality seems to be to get high and stay high.
    Many of us are currently fascinated with the possibilities of being happy or solving our problem by entering into various d-ASCs, using chemical or nonchemical means. We have not yet learned to estimate realistically the costs of this route. We know the costs of chronic alcohol use, but seem willing to tolerate them. We do not know the costs of other d-ASCs very well. Consensus realities can exist and be created in various d-ASCs. The explanation of ordinary consciousness as samsara may well apply in d-ASCs such as drunkenness or marijuana intoxication. In other d-ASCs, such as meditative states, samsaric illusion may be less common, but this has not yet been shown scientifically.
    We tend to get into what John Lilly {35} calls "overvaluation spaces"; we tend to be carried away by the contrast between our experience of the d-ASC and the ordinary d-SoC, and so overvalue the d-ASC. I think this is largely a function of novelty or need motivated blindness. Especially if we have taken a risk, such as using illegal drugs, to attain a d-ASC, we have a need to convince ourselves that the experience was worthwhile.
    Further discussion of the costs of various d-ASCs seems to me premature. The immense amount of cultural hysteria and propaganda in this area gives us distorted and mostly false views of what the costs are, and we must work through this and build up some scientific knowledge before we can talk adequately about costs and benefits of d-ASCs.
    The values of experiencing and working in d-ASCs can b exceptionally high. But, as is true of all the many tools that have been devised for human growth, a d-ASC's value depends on how well it is used. Experiencing a d-ASC carries no guarantee of personal betterment. Achieving a valuable d-ASC experience depends on what we want, how deeply and sincerely we want it, what conflicting desires we have, how much insight we have into ourselves, and how well prepared we are to make use of what we get in the d-ASC. There is a saying in many spiritual traditions: "He who tastes, knows." The process is not that automatic. A truer saying is: "He who tastes has an opportunity to know."
    In the d-ASCs we know much about scientifically, the experiencer can be in a samsaric condition, involved in a personal or a consensus reality that is cut off from reality, even though its style is different, interesting, or productive of greater happiness than the ordinary d-SoC.
    Techniques exist, however, that are intended to free a person's awareness from the dominance of the structure, of the machinery that has been culturally programmed into him. In terms of the radical view of awareness, whatever basic awareness ultimately is, there are techniques that at least produce the experience of freeing awareness partially or wholly from the continual dominance of structure, of moving toward a freer, more wide-ranging awareness rather than a consciousness that is primarily a function of the automated structure pattern of consensus reality. Let us consider the general categories into which these techniques fall, remembering that any discussion of their ultimate usefulness is beyond current science.
    The first step in using any of these techniques is to recognize that there is a problem. Assume, therefore, that an individual, through self-observation, has acquired enough experiential knowledge of his samsaric condition to know that he needs to and want to do something. Although there are many religious definitions of what a clear or higher state of consciousness simply as one in which external reality is recognized more for what it is, less distorted by internal processes.


Discriminative Awareness

    One way to begin to escape from the samsaric condition is to pay enough directed attention to your mental processes so that you can distinguish between primary perception coming in from the external world and associational reaction to it. We tend to assume that we do this naturally, but I believe it is rare. This may be done by understanding how your associational structures are built and how they generally operate, thus distinguishing associational reactions on a content basis, and/or by getting a general experiential "feel" for a quality that distinguishes associational reactions. If you can keep your primary perception and your reactions to it clearly distinguished in your consciousness, you are less likely to project your reactions to stimuli onto the environment and others or to distort incoming perception to make your perceptions consistent with internal reactions.
    I have found, from both personal observation and indications in the psychological literature that making this discrimination, putting a fairly high degree of awareness on the beginnings of the associational process, tend to undercut their ability to automatically stimulate other associational chains and thus activate emotions. You need not do anything in particular to the association, just be clearly aware that it is an associational reaction. The situation is analogous to being on your good behavior when you know others are watching, whether or not those others are doing anything in particular to influence your behavior.


A Watchman at the Gate

    If you refer to Figure 19-1 and 20-1, you will notice the label, DEROPP'S "WATCHMAN AT THE GATE" ENTERS HERE. The analogy taken from DeRopp's book {15}, is to a watchman at the city gate (the senses) who knows that certain slums in the city of the mind have outbursts of rioting when certain mischievous characters (stimulus patterns) are allowed into the city. The watchman scrutinizes each traveler who comes up and does not admit those he knows will cause rioting. If you have a good understanding of your associational and reaction patterns, your prepotent needs, and the particular kinds of stimuli that set them off, you can maintain an attentive watchfulness on your primary perception. When you realize that an incoming stimulus is the sort that will trigger an undesirable reaction, you can inhibit the reaction. It is easier to become self-conscious, and thus remove some of the energy from incoming stimuli before they have activated associational chains and prepotent needs, than to stop the reactions once they have been activated.
    To a certain extent the practice of discriminative awareness, described above, performs this function. Setting up the watchman, however, provides a more specialized discrimination, paying special attention to certain troublesome kinds of stimuli and taking more active measure when undesirable stimuli are perceived. The watchman robs the reaction of its power early enough to prevent it from gaining any appreciable momentum; discriminative awareness allows the reaction to tap into various prepotent needs, even though the continuous observation of it lessens identification and so takes away some of its power.



    A classical technique in the spiritual psychologies for escaping from samsara is the cultivation of nonattachment, learning to "look neutrally" on whatever happens, learning to pay full attention to stimuli and reactions but not to identify with them. The identification process, the quality added by the operation of the Sense of Identity subsystem discussed in Chapter 8, adds a great deal of energy to any psychological process. Without it, these processes have less energy and therefore make less mischief.
    Vipassana meditation is a specific practice of nonattachment performed in the technically restricted meditative setting. Recall that the instructions (Chapter 7) are to pay attention to whatever happens, but not to try to make anything in particular happen or to try to prevent anything in particular from happening. The idea is neither to welcome nor reject any particular stimulus or experience. This is quite different from the ordinary stance toward events, where a person seeks out and tries to pleasant ones. Meditation, as Naranjo {39} points out, is a technically simplified situation: a person removes himself from the bustle of the world to make learning easier. But it is also designed to teach nonattachment so the practice can be transferred to everyday life.
    If one is successful in practicing nonattachment, the machinery of the mind runs when stimulated, but does not automatically grab attention/awareness so readily; reactions and perceptions do not become indiscriminately fused together; and attention/awareness energy remains available for volitional use.
    These are two clear ways in which the practice of nonattachment can be flawed. Often a person believes that he is unaffected by certain things, that he just is not interested in them or that they do not bother him. This apparent indifference, however, actually comes from an active inhibitory process that takes place outside that focus of awareness. So he is really up-tight even if he does not feel it. Self-observation and/feedback from others is a corrective for this. Effective growth practices can thus promote unhappiness and upset by breaking through an inhibitory layer before being able to work on the disturbances themselves.
    The other flaw is that while nonattachment may free a person from the habitual loss of attention/awareness energy to the machinery of the mind, the machinery is still there. He no longer automatically identifies with the machinery; it no longer forcibly grabs his attention/awareness, but the machinery itself, while dormant, has not been dismantled. What happens if he is put in totally new circumstances in which he has not practiced nonattachment?
    Recall that once the machinery of the mind is activated, it grabs attention/awareness energy, and after this, control may be difficult or impossible. Totally new circumstances may activate the previously inactive structures in novel ways so that they cannot be stopped. A person may be unaware that the machinery has begun operating, so it can grab his attention/awareness energy and plunge him into a samsaric state again. This appears to have happened, for example, to some Indian yogis who began living in the West. Their practice of nonattachment as a principal discipline in India had enabled them to achieve a special serenity of mind, but this was under particular cultural circumstances. As one example, yogis and holy men are treated as nonsexual beings in India. Thus women may worship them, but in a completely nonsexual way. When they come to the West and are besieged in a sexual way by beautiful young girls, the yogis, lacking practice in handling this, are subject to strongly activated samsaric mechanisms.


Dismantling Structures

    The above techniques are mindfulness techniques, involving an increase in awareness of what is happening and how one is reacting to it, usually with some discipline, such as nonattachment, practiced in conjunction with this increased awareness. To some extent, these mindfulness techniques can actually dismantle some of the structures of the mind. This happens in two ways. First, some structures seem to need to operate in the dark; they cannot continue to operate when one is fully conscious of what is happening. Thus, insight into the nature of a structure results in its partial or full dissolution. Second, some structures and combinations of structures seem to need to be activated periodically to maintain their integrity. By practices like the watchman at the gate or nonattachment, which do not allow energy to flow freely into them, they are starved and gradually lose their integrity, Gurdjieff's {48} technique of self-observation, for example, involves paying full attention to one's reactions without making any attempt to change them. Many people practicing self-observation have had the experience of watching an undesirable reaction occur repeatedly, then weakly and later not at all, even though the requisite stimulus occurs.
    Many structures and subsystems are an intimate part of a person's enculturated personality, however, and are not only highly resistant to change by insight, but may be incapable of being perceived well at all. They are so connected to prepotent needs and defense mechanisms that they cannot be observed clearly, or else they are so implicit that they are outside awareness. They are never observed, so observation and mindfulness techniques do not work.
    Here is where Western-developed psychotherapy becomes exceptionally valuable. Through feedback and pressure provided by others, whether a single therapist or a group, ordinarily invisible aspects a person's self may be so surcharged with emotional energy that he is forced to confront them, and this insight may change them. If insight alone is not sufficient, a variety of techniques are available, ranging from operant-conditioning to guided imagery techniques {3}, which can deliberately change specific structures.
    Western-style psychotherapy is limited because it is likely to be used not on structures that are basic to the samsaric condition, but only on structures that produce experiences and behaviors that are not acceptable in the particular consensus reality. Thus many psychotherapists are not growth agents in a general sense, but rather work to readjust a deviant person to the consensus reality of his culture. This is not a conscious manipulation on the part of these psychotherapists, but simply a reflection of the power and implicitness of their own enculturation processes. Psychotherapy can be a subversive tool in some practitioners' hands, for some of the assumptions of the consensus reality can be questioned in it, and the patient can grow beyond his culture in some ways. All too often, however, the implicit assumptions are not even questioned.
    In stating that most patients do not learn to go beyond consensus reality, I do not want to imply that they should learn to behave in a way that is clearly at odds with consensus reality. To behave in "crazy" ways is no sure sign of escape from samsara. Knowing how to use effectively the consensus reality in which one lives in essential for survival. In terms of cultural, personal, and scientific goals of transcending samsaric limitations of the ordinary state, however, we should be aware of the limits of conventional psychotherapy.
    I suspect, as Naranjo {39} has suggested, that the synthesis of the psychotherapy techniques of the West and the spiritual disciplines of the East will form one of the most powerful tools for understanding ourselves that has ever existed. The various kinds mindfulness and nonattachment techniques are the ultimate tools because of their generality, but there may be some psychological structures in the personality that have so much energy, are so implicit, or are so heavily defended that they must be dealt with using specific psychotherapeutic techniques to dismantle them.


How Far Can We Go?

    If we assume, for the purpose of this discussion, the 9at least partial) validity of the radical view of the mind, then what are the limits to human consciousness and awareness? Figure 20-2 presents some speculation along this line.
    Consider reality as divided into two realms: MEST, the physical world, of which we know many of the basic laws and are discovering more, and the realm of awareness, whose basic laws are essentially unknown to us at this time. The ordinary d-SoC, then, is the gestalt product of awareness and structure, determined and limited by whatever laws inherently govern each realm, and yet is also an emergent synthesis not fully predictable from the laws of either realm.
    In some ways the composite system is even more limited, for both the MEST structure and awareness have been further restricted in the enculturation process. Thus the ordinary d-SoC is capable of considerable expansion: we can change existing structures and build new ones, and we can cultivate the ability to control awareness more freely within these structures and to pay attention to things other than what the culture has defined as important.
    Judging from experiential reports, some d-ASCs seem to be much less mechanical, much less controlled by structures and allowing more free range of awareness. This is represented in Figure 20-2 by the oval just to the left of the ordinary d-SoC penetrating more into the realm of awareness and less into the realm of MEST. Similarly, experiential reports from some d-ASCs—those caused by sedatives, for example—suggest that there is less awareness and far more mechanicalness, that consciousness is far more restricted by structure than ordinarily. Thus another oval, further to the left, shown as more into the MEST realm and less into the awareness realm. The extreme case of this, of course, is mechanical intelligence, the computer, which (as far as we know) has no awareness at all but processes information in a totally mechanical way, a way totally controlled by the laws of the MEST realm. Present computers are also partially limited by cultural structuring; it only occurs to us to program them to do certain "sensible" things, giving them a range that is probably less than their total capability.
    Up to this point the discussion is still compatible with the orthodox view of the mind, which sees awareness as a function of the brain. The circle to the far right in Figure 20-2, however, is compatible only with the radical view that awareness can operate partially or totally independently of the brain structure. In some mystical experiences, and in states called out-of-they-body experiences, people report existing at space/time locations different from that of their physical bodies, or being outside of space/time altogether. I believe that parapsychological data require us to consider this kind of statement as more than interesting experiential data, as possibly being valid rather than simply being nonsense. The reader interested in the implications of parapsychology for the study of consciousness should consult other writings of mine {128, 129, 131}. Let me note here that to the extent that this may be true, awareness may potentially become partially or wholly free of the patterning influence of MEST structure.
    An awareness of how structures and systems of structures tend automatically to grab attention/awareness and other psychological energies makes it easy to form a picture of structure as bad and to see d-SoCs that are less involved with structure as automatically better or higher. This is a mistake. Structures perform valuable functions as well as confining ones. A d-SoC is not just a way of limiting awareness; it is also a way of focusing attention/awareness and other psychological energies to make effective tools, to enable us to cope in particular ways.
    I have observed people in d-ASCs where they seem less caught in structures, more inclined toward the unstructured awareness dimension of mind. My impression is that it was both a gain and a loss: new insights were gained, but there was often an inability to hold to anything and change it in a desired direction. Certainly there are times when not attempting to change anything, just observing, is the best course, but the ability to move between activity and passivity as appropriate is optimal. The structures of d-SoCs aid us by restricting awareness and facilitating focusing. Perhaps as meditative and similar exercises teach us to control attention/awareness more precisely, we may have less need for structures.
    As a scientist, I have tried to keep the speculation in these last three chapters compatible with the scientific worldview and the scientific method as I know them. I have often drawn on data not generally accepted in orthodox scientific circles, but they are data that I would be willing to argue are good enough to deserve closer examination. Because I have set myself that restriction in writing this book, I now end speculation on how far human awareness might be able to go, for to continue would take me further from my scientific data base than I am comfortable in going at this time.
    Let me conclude with what may seem a curious observation: Western psychology has collected an immense amount of data supporting the concept in the first place. We have studied some aspects of samsara in far more detail than Eastern traditions that originated the concept of samsara. Yet almost no psychologists apply this idea to themselves! They apply all this knowledge of human compulsiveness and mechanicalness to other people, who are labeled "abnormal" or "neurotic," and assume that their own states of consciousness basically logical and clear. Western psychology now has a challenge to recognize this detailed evidence that our "normal" state is a state of samsara and to apply the immense power of science and our other spiritual traditions, East and West, to the search for a way out.


Figure 20-1. Development of samsaric consciousness with positive rather than negative emotional tone. As in Figure 19-1, internal processes soon overwhelm perception and are mistaken for perception. (back)


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