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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd

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Concensus Trance


The automated state may be described as "consensus trance", where the hypnotist is personified as the culture. It is a state of partly suspended animation and inability to function, a daze, a stupor; a retreat from immediate sensory-instinctual reality to abstractions about reality.

Becoming "normal", a fully-fledged member of your culture, involves a selected shaping, a development of approved ("natural", "godly", "polite", "civil") identities, and inhibition of disapproved ("evil", "criminal", "delinquent", "disrespectful") ones.

While it might be possible to role-play these, without internalizing them, this is difficult for most people. From a culture's point of view, it is far better if your everyday mind, the habitual, automatised way you think and feel, is shaped to reflect the culture's consensus beliefs and values. Then you will automatically perceive the right perceptions and interpretations, think, behave and feel "normally", for the best survival of the culture.

Identification, attaching the quality "This is me!", is a process of defining yourself as only a fraction of what you could be. Your sensations ("I itch") and body ("I"m ugly"), your thoughts ("I thought of it first") and feelings ("I am depressed") are easy to identify with, and especially your name, but also a person can identify with anything. Your possessions, past events, family, job, community, a victim in a newspaper story, cars, country, humanity, the planet, God... the list is endless.

A threat to the object of identification is a threat to "me", with according reactivation of threatened-survival trauma, felt physically as well as emotionally. We usually have a number of socially defined roles with which we identify, such as parent, educated person, good listener, political activist, or pillar of the community. We also commonly identify with other people, spouse, heroes, role models. We may be conditioned to identify with socially approved roles and values, part of consensus trance. It all seems so effortless (although it actually takes a lot of energy).

“Self-remembering is the ability to pause, to think, to consider the alternatives; the ability to say "No" to a stimulus, when we feel ruled by an unconscious habitual pattern.”

Indeed it takes deliberate volitional control of attention - what Gurdjieff called "self-remembering" - to avoid automatically falling into the appropriate identity programmed by past agreement (enforced or not) for a particular situation.

Self-remembering is the ability to pause, to think, to consider the alternatives; the ability to say "No" to a stimulus, when we feel ruled by an unconscious habitual pattern. The way to deal with these habits is to pause in time, before dramatization takes hold. Of course, this is asking more than most people are capable of in the heat of the moment; nevertheless, by self-analysis of such reactivity you can begin to understand why they such dramatizations arise and to erase them completely.

The insecurity stemming from the common cultural belief that the universe is hostile, that we are flawed and fragile, makes identification, as an apparent shield against change, seem tempting. But reality keeps changing - by identifying with things we set ourselves up for eventual loss. The body gets ill, ages, eventually dies. The car breaks down. Possessions wear out, or may get stolen. Memories fade.

Many of the things and roles you identified with were not your choices anyway - you were cajoled and conditioned to identify with many roles, ideas, people, causes and values that may have had no interest or were counter to your essential personality, your true self-determinism. Identification is too automatic, too subconscious.

Gurdjieff expressed it as the fact that any one of your many identities can sign a cheque; all the rest of you is obligated to pay, whether you/they like it or not. The person who has to fulfill a promise may not be the same person who made the promise.

But the main cost of identification is that a conditioned system of automatically available identities can hide you from the fact that you don't know your real identity, the essence behind these surface manifestations. Are you really your name? Your roles? Your feelings? Your intellectual mind? Your body? in truth, you are far more than anything you identify with.

A person in an identity state usually does not know that it does not represent the whole of himself - that is the horror of consensus trance. The usual range of identity states that we function in, ordinarily called personality, was called "false personality" by Gurdjieff because the identity states were forced on us in the process of enculturation rather than by self-determined choice. The overall pattern we call consciousness is largely consensus trance, directly analogous to post-hypnotic suggestion in ordinary hypnosis: when the suggested/conditioned stimulus appears, the linked behavior, the conditioned response, the particular "I" (or sub-personality) appears.

But we are not a blank state on which culture can write as it pleases with no consequences to us. We also have a unique genetic and spiritual endowment, that will begin to manifest more as we grow, so we might dislike athletics and like walking in the woods, for example, or find Shakespeare boring but enjoy writing letters, or find physics pointless but be fascinated with maths, or search for deeper truth despite being ridiculed by others who believe what they're told.

Consensus trance induction does have some powerful techniques, however. Just as we record the Parent's do's and don'ts and our Child responses, childhood is inevitably a process of shaping the behavior and consciousness of the child to be "normal", to fit social norms. And that inevitably involved certain aspects of your essential personality being invalidated, neglected, denied and punished until their external manifestations were suppressed.

As an adult you would act docilely and subserviently, and try to feel that way inside. You would tell yourself that you are a good person, a normal person. Others would "get on with you", and would accept you as a friend, reinforcing and validating your behavior. But inside, something, a part of your essence, has been squashed. You may also have a vague feeling that something isn't right, that even though you should be happy, you don't feel very happy. Some of your animation, your essential energy, has been lost to the maintenance of consensus trance. Or you may know that lots of things make you angry but you worry - "Am I normal? I'm not supposed to feel like this".

This sort of trance induction compares startlingly with conventional hypnosis. However, in an ordinary induction, it is time limited, only an hour or two. In real life your parents and your culture begin shaping your development from the moment of birth; it involves years of repeated inductions and reinforcement of the effects of previous inductions. Furthermore it's intended to last for a lifetime - there is no cultural therapist to give you the suggestion to wake up. Not until now at any rate.

In a conventional session, the subject does not expect to be bullied, threatened or harmed in any way by the therapist, it is a voluntary relationship between consenting adults. In the cultural situation, the power relationship between Parent and Child puts a strong forced quality on a natural consent to learn. Parents can use physical threats as needed, and actualize them with slaps, spankings, revocations of privileges or confiscation of toys.

Since the easiest way to act is to conform, the fear of punishment helps structure internal mental and emotional processes in culturally approved ways. The parents may use conditional love and affection to manipulate, as a threat or to validate conformity. As the child establishes social relationships with other adults and children (who also act as agents of the culture) he learns more about how he must act to be accepted. As these approved habits of acting become established and rewarded, they further structure the habitual patterns of mental functioning. Fear of rejection is a powerful motivation, because you have an inherent social instinct, a desire to belong, to be normal. Nobody likes being thought bad, but we are invalidated in so many ways that a general sense of unworthiness and guilt can easily be built up.

Another factor that gives this process great power is that the mental state of a young child leaves him very open to suggestion. In our ordinary state there is an enormous amount of automatic association of previous knowledge to incoming stimuli, but the child does not have the context of previous experience to come instantly to mind, so the suggestions operate in a disassociated state, isolated from other mental processes - a hypnotically suggestible state.

The lack of language (that increases our ability to associate information) further contributes to the disassociated quality of the child's mind. When we try, as adults (predominantly verbal thinkers), to understand our enculturation and conditioning, it is difficult to recall because much of it is not stored in verbal form.

Additionally, children have a deep trust in their parents on whom they are totally dependent. The parent is unconscious of the cultural trance he himself is in and simply sees himself as acting "naturally". The mental, emotional and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially susceptible as children. They have that compulsive quality that conditioning has; it is automatic. They may include suggestions that block later change, which even block later hypnosis on that subject, for example the resistance hypnotic subjects have to immoral suggestions.

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