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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        4.   The Nature of Ordinary Consciousness

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would
    appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro'
    narrow chinks of his cavern.
  William Blake,
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The prejudice that our ordinary state of consciousness is natural or given is a major obstacle to understanding the nature of the mind and states of consciousness. Our perceptions of the world, others, and ourselves, as well as our reactions to (consciousness of) them, are semi-arbitrary constructions. Although these constructions must have a minimal match to physical reality to allow survival, most of our lives are spent in consensus reality, that specially tailored and selectively perceived segment of reality constructed from the spectrum of human potential. We are simultaneously the beneficiaries and the victims of our culture. Seeing thins according to consensus reality is good for holding a culture together, but a major obstacle to personal and scientific understanding of the mind.
    A culture can be seen as a group which has selected certain human potentials as good and developed them, and rejected others as bad. Internally this means that certain possible experiences are encouraged and others suppressed to construct a "normal" state of consciousness that is effective in and helps define the culture's particular consensus reality. The process of enculturation begins in infancy, and by middle childhood the individual has a basic membership in consensus reality. Possibilities are partially shaped by the enculturation that has already occurred. By adulthood the individual enjoys maximum benefits from membership, but he is now maximally bound within this consensus reality. A person's "simple" perception of the world and of others is actually a complex process controlled by many implicit factors.
    One of the greatest problems in studying consciousness and altered states of consciousness is an implicit prejudice that tends to make us distort all sorts of information about states of consciousness. When you know you have a prejudice you are not completely caught by it, for you can question whether the bias is really useful and possibly try to change it or compensate for it. But when a prejudice is implicit it controls you without your knowledge and you have little chance to do anything about it.
    The prejudice discussed in this chapter is the belief that our ordinary state of consciousness is somehow natural. It is a very deep-seated and implicit prejudice. I hope in this chapter to convince you intellectually that it is not true. Intellectual conviction is a limited thing, however, and to know the relativity and arbitrariness of your ordinary state of consciousness on a deeper level is a much more difficult task.
    Consciousness, not our sense organs, is really our "organ" of perception, and one way to begin to see the arbitrariness of our consciousness is to apply the assumption that ordinary consciousness is somehow natural or given to a perceptual situation. This is done in Figure 4-1. A man is looking at a cat and believing that the image of the real cat enters his eye and is, in effect, faithfully reproduced on a screen in his mind, so that he sees the cat as it is. This naive view of perception was rejected long ago by psychologists, who have collected immense amounts of evidence to show that it is a ridiculously oversimplified, misleading, and just plain wrong view of perception. Interestingly, these same psychologists seldom apply their understanding of the complexity of perception to their own lives, and the person in the street does so even less.
    While there are a great many simple perceptions we can very well agree on, there are many others, especially the more important ones in human life, on which there is really little agreement. I would be that almost all adult, non-institutionalized humans in our society would agree that this object in your hand is called a book, but as we define more complex things the bet gets riskier. If you go to a courtroom trial and listen to the testimony of several eyewitnesses, all of whom presumably has basically the same stimuli reaching their receptors, you may hear several different versions of reality. Or, if you discuss the meaning of current events with your acquaintances, you will find that there are many other points of view besides your own. Most of our interest is directed by complex, multifaceted social reality of this sort.
    Most of us deal with this disagreement by simply assuming that those who disagree with us are wrong, that our own perceptions and consciousness are the standard of normality and rightness, and that other people cannot observe or think well and/or are lying, evil, or mentally ill.
    A Sufi teaching story called "Bread and Jewels" {58, p. 113} illustrates this nicely:

    A king once decided to give away a part of his wealth by disinterested charity. At the same time he wanted to watch what happened to it. So he called a baker whom he could trust and told him to bake two loaves of bread. In the first was to be baked a number of jewels, and in the other, nothing but flour and water.
    These were to be given to the most and least pious people whom the baker could find.
    The following morning two men presented themselves at the oven. One was dressed as a dervish and seemed most pious, though he was in reality a mere pretender. The other who said nothing at all, reminded the baker of a man whom he did not like, by a coincidence of facial resemblance.
    The baker gave the bread with jewels in it to the man in the dervish robe, and the ordinary loaf to the second man.
    As soon as he got his loaf the false dervish felt it and weighed it in his hand. He felt the jewels, and to him they seemed like lumps in the loaf, unblended flour. He weighed the bread in his hand and the weight of the jewels made it seem to him to be too heavy. He looked at the baker, and realized that he was not a man to trifle with. So he turned to the second man and said: "Why not exchange your loaf for mine? You look hungry, and his one is larger."
    The second man, prepared to accept whatever befell, willfully exchanged loaves.
    The king, who was watching through a crack in the bakehouse door, was surprised, but did not realize the relative merits of the two men.
    The false dervish got the ordinary loaf. The king concluded that Fate had intervened to keep the dervish protected from wealth. The really good man found the jewels and was able to make good use of the. The king could not interpret this happening.
    "I did what I was told to do," said the baker.
    "You cannot tamper with Fate," said the king.
    "How clever I was!" said the false dervish.

    The king, the baker, and the false dervish all had their own views of what reality was. None of them was likely ever to correct his impression of this particular experience.
    Consciousness, then, including perception, feeling, thinking, and acting, is a semi-arbitrary construction. I emphasize semi-arbitrary because I make the assumption, common to our culture that there are some fixed rules governing physical reality whose violation produces inevitable consequences. If someone walks off the edge of a tall cliff, I believe he will fall to the bottom and probably be killed, regardless of his beliefs about cliffs, gravity, or life and death. Thus people in cultures whose belief systems do not, to a fair degree, match physical reality, are not likely to survive long enough to argue with us. But once the minimal degree of coincidence with physical reality necessary to enable physical survival has been attained, the perception/consciousness of an action in the complex social reality that then exists may be very arbitrary indeed.
    We must face the fact, now amply documented by the scientific evidence presented in any elementary psychology textbook, that perception can be highly selective. Simple images of things out there are not clearly projected onto a mental screen, where we simply see them as they are. The act of perceiving is a highly complex, automated construction. It is a selective category system, a decision-making system, preprogrammed with criteria of what is important to perceive. It frequently totally ignores things it has not been preprogrammed to believe are important.
    Figure 4-2 shows a person with a set of categories programmed in his mind, a selection of implicit criteria to recognize things that are "important." When stimulated by one of these things he is preprogrammed to perceive, he readily responds to it. More precisely, rather than saying he responds to it which implies a good deal of directness in perception, we might say that it triggers a representation of itself in his mind, and he then responds to that representation. As long as it is a good representation of the actual stimulus object, he has a fairly accurate perception. Since he tends to pay more attention to the representations of things he sees than to the things themselves, however, he may think he perceives a stimulus object clearly when actually he is perceiving an incorrect representation.
    This is where perception begins to be distorted by the perceiver's training and needs. Eskimos have been trained to distinguish seven or more kinds of snow. We do not see these different kinds of snow, even though they exist, for we do not need to make these distinctions. To us it is all snow. Our one internal representation of snow is triggered indiscriminately by any kind of actual snow. Similarly, for the paranoid person who needs to believe that others are responsible for his troubles, representations of threatening actions are easily triggered by all sorts of behaviors on the part of others. A detailed analysis of this is given in Chapter 19.
    What happens when we are faced by the unknown, by things we have not been trained to see? Figure 4-3, using the same kind of analogy as the previous figure, depicts this. We may not see the stimulus at all: the information passes right through the mind without leaving a trace. Or we may see a distorted representation of the stimulus: some of the few features it has in common with known stimuli trigger representations of the known features, and that is what we perceive. We "sophisticated" Westerners do not believe in angels. If we actually confronted one, we might not be able to see it correctly. The triangle in its hands is a familiar figure, however, so we might perceive the triangle readily. In fact, we might see little but the triangle—maybe a triangle in the hands of a sweet old lady wearing a white robe.
    Don Juan, the Yaqui man of knowledge, puts it quite succinctly: "I think you are only alert about things you know" {10}.
    I mentioned above the curious fact about psychologists, who know about the complexities of perception, almost never seem to apply this information to their own perceptions. Even though they study the often large and obvious distortions in other people's perceptions, they maintain an image of themselves as realistic perceivers. Some psychologists even argue that perception is actually quite realistic. But what does "realistic" mean?
    We like to believe that it means perception of the real world, the physical world. But the world we spend most of our time perceiving is not just any segment of the physical world, but a highly socialized part of the physical world that has been built into cities, automobiles, television sets. So our perception may indeed be realistic, but it is so only with respect to a very tailored segment of reality, a consensus reality, a small selection of things we have agreed are "real" and "important." thus, within our particular cultural framework, we can easily set up what seem to be excellent scientific experiments that will show that our perceptions are indeed realistic, in the sense that we agree with each other on these selected items from our consensus reality.
    This is a way of saying that our perceptions are highly selective and filtered, that there is a major subsystem of consciousness, Input-Processing discussed at length later, that filters the outside world for us. If two people have similar filtering systems, as, for example, if they are from the same culture, they can agree on many things. But again, as Don Juan says, "I think you are only alert about things you know." If we want to develop a science to study consciousness, and want that science to go beyond our own cultural limitations, we must begin by recognizing the limitations and arbitrariness of much of our ordinary state of consciousness.
    I have now mentioned several times that we believe certain things imply because we were trained to believe them. Let us now look at the training process by which our current "normal" or ordinary state of consciousness came about.



    Figure 4-4 illustrates the concept of the spectrum of human potential. By the simple fact of being born human, having a certain type of body and nervous system, existing in the environmental conditions of the planet earth, a large (but certainly not infinite) number of potentials are possible for you. Because you are born into a particular culture, existing at a particular time and place on the surface of the planet, however, only a small (perhaps a very small) number of these potentials will ever be realized and become actualities. We can think of a culture[1] as a group of people who, through various historical processes, have come to an agreement that certain human potentials they know of are "good," "holy," "natural," or whatever local word is used for positively valuing them, and should be developed. They are defined as the essence of being human. Other potentials, also known to the culture, are considered "bad," "evil," "unnatural." The culture actively inhibits the development of these potentials in its children, not always successfully. A large number of other human potentials are simply not known to that particular culture, and while some of them develop owing to accidental circumstances in a particular person's life, most do not develop for lack of stimulation. Some of these potentials remain latent, capable of being developed if circumstances are right in later life; others disappear completely through not being developed at an early, critical stage.
    Most of us know how to do arithmetic, speak English, write a check, drive an automobile, and most of us know about things, like eating with our hands, which are repellent to us (naturally or through training?). Not many of us, though, were trained early in childhood to enter a d-ASC where we can be, for example, possessed by a friendly spirit that will teach us songs and dances as is done by some cultures. Nor were most of us trained to gain control over our dreams and acquire spirit guides in those dreams who will teach us useful things, as the Senoi of Malaysia are {88 or 115, ch. 9}. Each of us is simultaneously the beneficiary of his cultural heritage and the victim and slave of his culture's narrowness. What I believe is worse is that few of us have any realization of this situation. Like almost all people in all cultures at all times, we think our local culture is the best and other peoples are uncivilized or savages.
    Figure 4-4 shows two different cultures making different selections from and inhibitions of the spectrum of human potential. There is some overlap: all cultures, for example, develop a language of some sort and so use those particular human potentials. Many potentials are not selected by any culture.
    We can change the labels in Figure 4-4 slightly and depict various possible experiences selected in either of two states of consciousness. Then we have the spectrum of experiential potentials, the possible kinds of experiences or modes of functioning of human consciousness. The two foci of selection are two states of consciousness. These may be two "normal" states of consciousness in two different cultures or, as discussed later, two states of consciousness that exist within a single individual. The fact that certain human potentials can be tapped in state of consciousness A that cannot be tapped in state of consciousness B is a major factor behind the current interest in altered states of consciousness.
    Figure 4-4, then, indicates that in developing a "normal" state of consciousness, a particular culture selects certain human potentials and structures them into a functioning system. This is the process of enculturation. It begins in infancy, possibly even before birth: there has been speculation, for example, that the particular language sounds that penetrate the walls of the womb from outside before birth may begin shaping the potentials for sound production in the unborn baby.
    Figure 4-5 summarizes the main stages of the enculturation process. The left-hand column represents the degree to which physical reality shapes the person and the degree to which the person can affect (via ordinary muscular means) physical reality. The right-hand column indicates the main sources of programming, the psychological influences on the person. The main stages are infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence.



    We tend to think of a newborn infant as a rather passive creature, capable of little mental activity, whose primary job is simple physical growth. Recent research, on the contrary, suggests that a person's innate learning capacity may be highest of all in infancy, for the infant has to learn to construct the consensus reality of his culture. This is an enormous job. The cultural environment, for instance, begins to affect the perceptual biases described in Chapter 8 as the Input-Processing subsystem. Most Westerners, for example, are better at making fine discriminations between horizontal lines and vertical lines than between lines that are slanted. At first this was thought to result from the innate hardware properties (racial, genetic) of the eye and nervous system, but recent evidence shows that it is probably a cultural effect. Cree Indians, who as infants live in teepees where there are many slanted lines, can discriminate slanted lines as acutely as horizontal and vertical ones{2}. "Civilized" Westerners, on the other hand, grow up in environments where vertical and horizontal lines predominate. In more ways than we can even begin to think of, the enculturation process affects perception, and ultimately consciousness, even in infancy.
    Note also that the structuring/programming of our consciousness that takes place in early infancy is probably the most persistent and most implicit of all our programming and learning, for at that time we have no other framework to compare it with. It is the only thing we have, and it is closely connected with our physical survival and our being loved and accepted. It gives us a loyalty and a bond to our culture's particular world-view that may be almost impossible for us to break, but again, one whose limitations we must be aware of if we are really to understand the workings of our minds. Another Sufi teaching story, "The Bird and the Egg" {58, p. 130}, illustrates the power of this early programming:
    Once upon a time there was bird which did not have the power of flight. Like a chicken, he walked about on the ground, although he knew that some birds did fly.
    It so happened that, through a combination of circumstances, the egg of a flying bird was incubated by this flightless one.
    In due time the chick came forth, still with the potentiality for flight which he had always had, even from the time he was in the egg.
    It spoke to its foster-parent, saying: "When will I fly?" And the landbound bird said: "Persist in your attempts to fly, just like the others."
    For he did not know how to take the fledgling for its lesson in flying: even how to topple it from the nest so that it might learn.
    And it is curious, in a way, that the young bird did not see this. His recognition of the situation was confused by the fact that he felt gratitude to the bird who had hatched him.
    "Without this service," he said to himself, "surely I would still be in the egg?"
    And, again, sometimes he said to himself: "Anyone who can hatch me, surely he can teach me to fly. It must be just a matter of time, or of my own unaided efforts, or of some great wisdom: yes, that is it. Suddenly one day I will be carried to the next stage by him who has brought me thus far."



    By the time an ordinary person reaches childhood, he has attained a basic membership in the consensus reality of his culture. A normal child has a pretty good idea of the dos and don'ts of his culture and behaves in a generally acceptable fashion. Many of the potentials present at the time of his birth are gone by now, but consensus reality has been formed from the few that have been cultivated.
    One of the main ways in which consciousness is shaped to fit consensus reality is through the medium of language. The word for an object focuses a child's perception onto a specific thing considered important by the culture. Social approval for this kind of behavior gives words great power. As a child gradually grows in his mastery of language, the language structure and its effect on consciousness grow at an exponential rate. The tyranny of words is one of the most difficult things from which we must try to free ourselves.
    A child's basic membership in consensus reality is not complete. The mind of the child can still do many strange (by adult standards) things. As Pearce {49, p. 56} comments:
    The child's mind is autistic, a rich texture of free synthesis, halluncinatory and unlimited. His mind can skip over syllogisms with ease, in a non-logical, dream-sequence kind of "knight's move" continuum. He nevertheless shows a strong desire to participate in a world of others. Eventually his willingness for self-modification, necessary to win rapport with his world, is stronger than his desire for autonomy. Were it not, civilization would not be possible. That we succeed in moulding him to respond to our criteria shows the innate drive for communion and the flexibility of a young mind. It doesn't prove an essential and sanctified rightness of our own constructs.
    Maturity, or becoming reality adjusted, restricts and diminishes that "knight's move" thinking, and tends to make pawns of us in the process. The kind of adult logic that results is dependent on the kinds of demands made on the young mind by parents and society.

    It is precisely this kind of childish strangeness that both frustrates us adults when we try to deal with children and excites our envy when we realize children have a certain freedom we do not have.



    Adolescence is a different stage from childhood, not just a continuation of it, because the influx of sexual energies at puberty allows considerable change in the ordinary consciousness of the child. for most adolescents this is a time of turmoil (at least in our culture) as they strive to adjust to bodily changes and to learn to satisfy their sexual needs within the mores of the culture.
    For many there is a continuity with childhood, and after a transitional period of being difficult, the adolescent settles into a pattern of being a grown-up version of the child he was. For others a conversion of some sort occurs: the sexual and other energies unleashed at puberty become sublimated into a belief system that may be radically different from what they had as children. If this is traumatic or sudden, or if the belief system is radically at odds with that of the parents, we notice this conversion. If the sublimation of the energies is into a socially accepted pattern, we are not as likely to perceive it.
    Conversion is a powerful psychological process that we do not understand well. It bears some similarity to the concept of a discrete state of consciousness (introduced later) but more basically refers to a psychological process of focusing, of giving great energy to selected structures, that may take place in any state of consciousness.
    I do not believe that the conversion process is completely free to go wherever it will. By the time a person has reached adolescence (or later, if conversion takes place later), many human potentials he possessed at birth are, for lack of stimulation, simply no longer available. Of the latent potentials that still could be used, cultural selection and structuring have already made some more likely than others t o be utilized in a conversion. Thus even the rebels in a society are in many ways not free: the direction that rebellion takes has already been strongly shaped by enculturation processes.
    The adolescent is very much a member of the consensus reality of his culture: his ordinary state of consciousness is well adapted to fit into, and he has a fair degree of control over his physical environment. For most "ordinary" adolescents, there are far fewer possibilities for unusual functions of consciousness than there were in childhood.



    Adults are full-fledged members of the consensus reality: they both maintain it through their interaction with their peers and are shaped by it and by parts of it. Adults are, as Don Juan taught, always talking to themselves about their ordinary things, keeping up a constant pattern of information flow in their minds along familiar routes. This strengthens and maintains their membership in the consensus reality and their use of their ordinary state of consciousness as a means for dealing with consensus reality.
    Because of the power over physical reality given them by their consensus reality state of consciousness, adults are the most free; yet, because they are the most thoroughly indoctrinated in consensus reality, they are the most bound. They receive many rewards for participating in the consensus reality in an acceptable way, and they have an enormous number of external and internalized prohibitions that keep them from thinking and experiencing in ways not approved by the consensus reality. The Sufi teaching story, "Bayazid and the Selfish Man" {58 p. 180}, shows how difficult it is for an adult to free himself from the power of ordinary consciousness and consensus reality, even when he believes he wants to:
    One day a man reproached Bayazid, the great mystic of the ninth century, saying that he had fasted and prayed and so on for thirty years and not found the joy which Bayazid described. Bayazid told him that he might continue for three hundred years and still not find it.
    "How is that?" asked the would-be illuminate.
    "Because your vanity is a barrier to you."
    "Tell me the remedy."
    "The remedy is one which you cannot take."
    "Tell me, nevertheless."
    Bayazid said: "You must go to the barber and have your (respectable) beard shaved. Remove all your clothes and put a girdle around yourself. Fill a nosebag with walnuts and suspend it from your neck. Go to the marketplace and call out: 'A walnut will I give to any boy who will strike me on the back of neck.' Then continue to the justices' session so that they may see you."
    "But I cannot do that; please tell me something else that would do as well."
    "This is the first move, and the only one," said Bayazid, but I had already told you that you would not do it; so you cannot be cured."

    I stress the view that we are prisoners of our ordinary state of consciousness, victims of our consensus reality, because it is necessary to become aware of this if we are to have any hope of transcending it, of developing a science of the mind that is not culturally limited. Enormous benefits result from sharing in our consensus reality, but these benefits must not blind us to the limits of this reality.



    The final stage in a person's life comes when he is too old to participate actively in the affairs of his culture. His mid may be so rigid by this time that it can do little but rerun the programs of consensus reality while his abilities diminish. If he is aware of other possibilities, he may find old age a way of freeing himself from cultural pressures and begin to explore his mind in a new way. There are cultural traditions, in India, for example, where a person who has fulfilled his main tasks in life is expected to devote his remaining years to exploring his own mind and searching out spiritual values. This is difficult to think about in the context of our own culture, however, for we have so overvalued youth and the active mode of life that we define older people as useless, a defining action that often affects those older people so that they believe it.


The Complexity of Consciousness

    This chapter opened with a drawing showing the naiveté of the view that perception and consciousness are means of grasping physical reality. It ends with a drawing (Figure 4-6) that shows a truer and more complex view of perception (and, to some extent, of the consciousness behind it). In the center of the drawing are depicted various stimuli from others and from the physical world impinging on the individual. These stimuli produce effects that can be classified as mental, emotional, and bodily. The innermost reaction circle represents clearly conscious experiences. At this moment, as I write, I hear a pneumatic drill being used to break up the pavement outside my window. I mentally speculate about the air pressure used to operate such an interesting tool but note that it is distracting me; I emotionally dislike the disturbance of my writing; the muscles of my face and ears tighten a little, as if that will reduce the impact of the noxious sound on me.
    While the three-part classification of effects provides a simplification, in reality the mental, emotional, and bodily responses to stimuli interact at both conscious and less than conscious levels. My mind notices the tension around my ear and interprets that as something wrong, which, as a minor emotional threat, aggravates the noxiousness of the sound, etc.
    Immediately behind fully conscious experiences are easily experienceable phenomena, represented by the second circle. The mental effect of these phenomena relates to the individual's explicit belief system: I believe that noise is undesirable, but I am fascinated by the workings of machines. Their emotional effect relates to the things he readily knows he likes or dislikes: loud noises generally bother me and make me feel intruded upon. Their bodily effect relates to consciously usable skills and movements: I can relax my facial muscles. These phenomena affect the individual at a level that is not in the focus of consciousness, but that can be easily made conscious by paying attention.
    These two levels are themselves affected and determined by a more implicit level of functioning, implicit in that the individual cannot identify its content simply by wanting to and paying attention. Where did I get the idea that noise is an intrusion? Why am I fascinated by the workings of machines? I do not know. I might be able to find out by prolonged psychological exploration, but the information is not easily available, even though these things affect me. Why do I have an immediate emotional dislike of noise? Is there some unconscious reaction behind it? How have I come to maintain certain muscle sets in my face that are affected by stress in certain ways?
    The outer circle in Figure 4-6 represents basic learnings, conditionings, motor patterns, instincts, reflexes, language categories, and the like, which are so implicit the individual can hardly/ recognize their existence. This is the level of the hardware, the biological givens, and the basic enculturation processes. The distance of these things from consciousness makes it extremely difficult for him to discover and compensate for their controlling influences: they are, in many ways, the basis of himself.
    If the stimulus in the middle of Figure 4-6 is a cat, this whole complex machine functions, a machine designed by our culture. We don't "just" see the cat! Our ordinary state of consciousness is a very complex construction indeed, yet Figure 4-6 hardly goes into details at all. So much for the naturalness of our ordinary state of consciousness.

Figure 4-6



    [1] For simplicity here, we will ignore subcultures and conflicts within a culture. (back)

Chapter 5

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