This article appeared in Whole Earth Review issue #75.
Charley Tart on Consensus Trance:
<SLAP> <SLAP> Wake up!
By Howard Rheingold
The relationship between the use of language and the induction
of trance states might be one of the keys to understanding life in the
last years of the technology millenium. What if we're all in a trance,
and have been given hypnotic suggestions to ignore the evidence that
we are in a trance? As we stumble around, bedazzled, enormous machines
eat the earth. How would we treat people who try to tell us that we
need to wake up? Ask Charley Tart, Ph.D. As Professor of Psychology at
the University of California, Davis, where he has taught, conducted
research, and written books for the past 26 years, Charles Tart,
Ph.D., qualifies as a tweedcoat and even a whitecoat. He is a member
in good standing of the science cult, and his down to earth, low-key
presentation lends an unexpected insider punch to his statements about
the science cult's blind spots -- and every human's blind spots. He
thinks of himself as a scientist, not a guru, working in a field that
is underpopulated despite it's importance. It is underpopulated
because research into consciousness is dangerous to an experimental
psychologist's career, and because it isn't easy to do the kind of
research that can get the attention of the orthodoxy. Tart's most
recent book is Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential.
[...] You can contact Dr. Tart via email:
-- Howard Rheingold
States of consciousness, from altered states to the state
earthlings call "normal waking consciousness," have been Charley
Tart's specialty for two decades. Surprisingly, Dr. Tart no longer
calls it "normal consciousness," and has substituted what he feels to
be a more accurate term: consensus trance. To him, the idea of "normal
consciousness" is the kind of convenient fiction illustrated by the
famous folktale of "the emperor's new clothes." Together, human groups
agree on which of their perceptions should be admitted to awareness
(hence, consensus), then they train each other to see the world in
that way and only in that way (hence trance).
In the 1960s, Tart's groundbreaking scientific articles about
hypnosis and dreams appeared in psychological journals, and in 1969 he
published a collection of scientific articles, Altered States of
Consciousness, bringing together laboratory studies of yogins,
analysis of the brain-waves of Zenmasters, research into hypnotically
induced dreams, lucid dreams, mutual hypnosis, and other borderlands
of human consciousness that were beginning to attract scientific
By his account, Charles Tart's childhood interest in his own
vivid dream life -- a wondrous realm that everybody around him declared
to be "unreal" -- was a factor in his decision to become a
psychologist. Each night, in the dream state, he discovered as all
children do that he could visit magical kingdoms and do all manner of
miraculous things. And like all children, when he told his parents
about these dreams he was reminded that such experiences are "figments
of the imagination." If all his nocturnal adventures were not
considered to be legitimate reality to the adults he told about his
dreams, what was so special about being awake that made it more real?
And why do people, when awake, seem oblivious of the existence of that
other, magical realm of dream consciousness?
Experimental psychology was the vehicle Tart chose to pursue
his questions about consciousness and reality. Although much of his
early research involved dreaming, he was attracted to the mysterious
altered state of consciousness known as hypnosis. Tart learned from
his earliest experiences as a hypnotist that reality can be influenced
far more strongly by one's state of mind than most people suspect,
most of the time:
"In inducing hypnosis I would sit down with a volunteer who
wanted to be hypnotized," Tart recalled. "We were presumably both
normal people. With our eyes we presumably saw the same room around us
that others saw; with our ears we presumably heard the ordinary sounds
in the room. We smelled what odors were there and felt the solidity of
the real objects in the room."
"Then I began to talk to the subject. Researchers give the
style of talking the special name of 'hypnotic induction procedure,'
but basically it was just talking. The subject was given no drugs, was
not in a special environment, had nothing external done to his brain
-- and yet in twenty minutes I could drastically change the universe he
lived in. With a few words, the subject could not lift his arm. With a
few more he heard voices talking when no one was there. A few more
words and he could open his eyes and see something that no one else
could see, or, with the right suggestion, a real object in plain sight
in the room would be invisible to him."
How can anybody distinguish, then, between dream, hypnotic
trance, and reality? Dehypnotization, the procedure of breaking out of
the normal human state of awareness, according to both mystics and
hypnotists, is a matter of direct mental experience. The method can be
learned, and that's the nutshell description of the esoteric wisdom of
The clues from hypnosis research, experiments into the
influence of beliefs upon perceptions, and teachings from the mystical
traditions, led Tart to see how normal waking consciousness is the
product of a true hypnotic procedure that is practiced by parents,
teachers, and peers, reinforced by every social interaction, and
maintained by powerful taboos. Consensus trance induction Ñ the
process of learning the "normal waking" state of mind -- is
involuntary, and occurs under conditions that give it far more power
than ordinary hypnotists are ever allowed. When infants are first
subjected to the processes that induce consensus trance, they are all
vulnerable and dependent upon their consensus hypnotists, for their
parents are the ones who initiate them into the rules of their
culture, according to the instructions that had been impressed upon
them by their own parents, teachers, and peers.
Among the techniques prohibited to ethical hypnotists but
wielded effectively in the induction of consensus trance are: the
enormous amount of time devoted to the induction (years to a
lifetime), the use of physical force, emotional force, love and
validation, guilt, and the instinctive trust children have for their
parents. As they learn myriad versions of 'the right way to do things'
-- and the things not to do -- from their parents, children build and
continue to maintain a mental model of the world, a filter on their
reality lens that they learn to perceive everything through (except
partially in dreams). The result leaves most people in an automatized
daze. "It is a fundamental mistake of man's to think that he is alive,
when he has merely fallen asleep in life's waiting room," is the way
Idries Shah, a contemporary exponent of ancient Middle Eastern
mystical psychologies, put it (Seeker After Truth, Octagon Press,
If humans are indeed on the verge of realizing that we are
caught in illusions while thinking we are perceiving reality, how do
we propose to escape? The answer, Tart has concluded, could come in
the form of "mindfulness training " -- a variety of exercises for
elevating awareness by deliberately paying closer-than-usual attention
to the mundane details of everyday life. Gurdjieff called it
"self-remembering," and many flavors of psychotherapist, East and
West, use it. Mindfulness is a skill that can be honed by the right
approach to what is happening right in front of you: "Be here now" as
internal gymnastics. Working, eating, waiting for a traffic light to
change can furnish opportunities for mindfulness. Observe what you are
feeling, thinking, perceiving, don't get hung up on judging it, just
pay attention. Tart thinks this kind of self-observation -- noticing
the automatization -- is the first step toward waking up.
Why aren't the psychology departments of every major
university working on the best ways to dehypnotize ourselves?
"We tend to think of consensus consciousness like a clearing
in the wilderness." Tart replied. "We don't know what monsters are out
there. We've made a place that's comfortable and fortified, and we are
very ambivalent about leaving this little clearing for even a moment."
Most of the world's major value systems, Tart contends, are
based on an extraordinary state of consciousness on the part of a
prophet, or a group of people. To Christians, being "born again" is an
altered state of consciousness. Moses heard sacred instructions from a
burning bush. Mohammed received the Koran in a dream. Buddha sat under
a tree and woke up. Most of the values that guide people's lives
around the world today are derived from those extraordinary states of
"If the sources of our values derive from altered-states
experiences, and if we want to have some intelligent control of our
destiny, we'd better not define these states out of existence. They
are the vital sources of life and culture and if we don't really
understand altered states we're going to live a very dispirited life.
I asked him if he sees a way out of this dilemma of
self-reinforcing institutional and individual trancemanship.
"Yes, I do," he replied. "We are indoctrinated to believe that
intellect is what makes humans great, and emotions are primitive
leftovers from our jungle ancestors that interfere with our marvelous
logical minds. It is possible to train people to base decisions on the
appropriate mixture of emotional, intellectual and body-instinctive
intelligence. Compassion and empathy are emotions, and I agree with
the Buddhists that these emotions are highly evolved, not primitive.
With enough training in self-observation, we can develop a new kind of
intelligence to bear on the world. Everyday life is quite an
interesting place if you pay attention to it."
This article was converted from the text in Howard Rheingold's
collection, formerly at http://riceinfo.rice.edu/projects/RDA/VirtualCity/Rheingold/texts/.