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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        19.   Ordinary Consciousness as a State of Illusion

A belief common to almost all spiritual disciplines is that the human being is ordinarily in a state of consciousness described by such words as illusion, waking dreaming, waking hypnosis, ignorance, maya (Indian), or samsara (Buddhist). The realization of this unsatisfactorily nature of one's ordinary d-SoC serves as the impetus for purifying it and/or attaining d-ASCs that are considered clearer and more valuable. This chapter considers the nature of samsara[1] (illusion) form the viewpoint of a Western psychologist. This interpretation does not present a full understanding of the concept of samsara or related concepts, but is simply a way of expressing it that should be useful to other Westerners. This understanding flows partly from the systems approach developed in previous chapters.
    Consciousness, as we ordinarily know it in the West, is not pure awareness but rather awareness as it is embodied in the psychological structure of the mind or the brain. Ordinary experience is of neither pure awareness nor pure psychological structure, but of awareness embedded in and modified by the structure of the mind/brain, and of the structure of the mind/brain embedded in and modified by awareness. These two components, awareness and psychological structures constitute a gestalt, an overall interacting, dynamic system that makes up consciousness.
    To most orthodox Western psychologists awareness is a by-product of the brain. This primarily reflects a commitment to certain physicalistic concepts rather than any real understanding of what awareness is. In most spiritual disciplines, awareness is considered to exist, or have potential to exist, independently of brain structure {128}.
    Let us now take a Western, psychological look at how ordinary consciousness can be a state of illusion, samsara. Figure 19-1 represents the psychological processes of a person we shall call Sam at six succeeding instants of time, labeled T1 through T6. The vertical axis represents stimuli from the external world received in the six succeeding instants of time; the horizontal axis represents internal, psychological processes occurring through these six succeeding instants of time. The ovals represent the main psychological contents that are in the focus of consciousness, what Sam is mainly conscious of, where almost all the attention/awareness (energy) is. The arrows represent information flow; labels along the arrows indicate the nature of that information flow. The small circles containing the letter A represent internal psychological associations provoked by the external stimuli or by other internal associations: they are structures, the machinery of the mind.
    Figure 19-1 is a flow diagram of what happens in Sam's mind, how information comes in to him and how this information is reacted to. Some of the effects are deliberately exaggerated to make points, so Sam appears psychotic in rather paranoid way. As is discussed later, this example is not really so very different from our own ordinary consciousness.
    In terms of the external world, a stranger walks up to Sam and says, "Hi, my name is Bill." For simplicity, we assume that this is all that happens of consequence in the external world, even though in everyday life such a message usually accompanied by other messages expressed in gestures and bodily postures, modified by the setting in which they occur, etc. But the defined reality here is that they stranger says, "Hi, my name is Bill." This utterance occupies the first five sequential units of time.
    At time T1 the oval contains the label Primary Meaning, indicating that the focus of conscious awareness is the word Hi. Although this is shown as a simple perception it is not a simple act. The word Hi would be a meaningless pattern of sounds except for the fact that Sam has already learned to understand the English language and thus perceives not only the sound qualities of the word Hi, but also its agreed-upon meaning. Already we are dealing not only with awareness per se, but with relatively permanent psychological structures that automatically give conventional meaning to language. Sam is an enculturated person.
    The straightforward perception of the meaning of this word in its agreed-upon form is an instance of clear or relatively enlightened consciousness within the given consensus reality. Someone says Hi to you and you understand that this is a greeting synonymous with words like hello and greetings.
    We can hypothesize that a relatively clear state of mind in the period T1 through T5 consists of the following. At each instant in time, the stimulus word being received is clearly perceived in the primary focus of consciousness with its agreed-upon meaning, and there is a sufficient memory continuity across these instants of time to understand the sequence. Information from each previous moment of consciousness is passed clearly on to the next, so that the meaning of the overall sequence of worlds is understood. For example, at time T2 not only is the word my perceived clearly but the word Hi has been passed on internally from time T1 as a memory, so Sam perceives that the sequence is Hi, my. Similarly by time T5, there is primary perception of the agreed-upon meaning of the word Bill, coupled with a clear memory of Hi, my name is from the preceding four instants of time. This simple message of the speaker is thus perceived for exactly what it is.
    Figure 19-1, however, shows a much more complex process than this clear perception of primary stimulus information. my own psychological observations have convinced me that this more complex process takes place all the time, and the straightforward, relatively clear perception described above is a rarity, especially for any prolonged period of time. So, let us look at this diagram of samsara in detail.
    Again, we start with the primary meaning reception of the word Hi at time T1. At the T2, however, not only is there a primary, undistorted reception of the word my, but internally an association has taken place to the word Hi. This association is that PRICES ARE HIGH. This is deliberately an illogical (by consensus reality standards) association, based on the sound of the word and involving some departure from the primary meaning of the word Hi used as a greeting. In spite of our culture's veneration of logic, most of our psychological processes are not logical.
    (Ignore the label DEROPP'S "WATCHMAN AT THE GATE" ENTERS HERE for the time being.)
    The association PRICES ARE HIGH is not obviously pathological or nonadaptive at this point. Since prices on so many commodities have risen greatly, it is a likely association to hearing the word Hi, even though it does not strictly follow from the context of the actual stimulus situation. The pathology begins, the mechanism of samsara begins operating, in the fact that this association is not made in the full focus of consciousness but on the fringes of or even outside consciousness. Most attention/ awareness energy is focused on the perception of my and the memory of Hi, so they are perceived clearly, but some attention/ awareness energy, too little for clear consciousness, started "leaking" at T1 and activated an association structure. The primary focus of consciousness at time T2 is on the stimulus word my. The association PRICES ARE HIGH, operating on the fringes of consciousness, is shown as sending some informational content or feeling about money in general into the primary focus of consciousness at time T2, but it is secondary content, with too little energy to be clear.
    If associational activities decay or die out at this simple level, the state of samsara will not occur. But psychological processes that operate outside the clear focus of consciousness tend to get out of hand, acting much the same as implicit you are totally controlled by it as it does not occur to you to question it.
    Let us assume that the association PRICES ARE HIGH triggers a further association during time T2 because of the word HIGH, and this is an association of the sort I NEVER GET HIGH. This second association then connects up at time T3 with emotionally charged concerns of Sam's, represented by the arrow as PREPOTENT NEED/DRIVE #1. Given the particular personality and concerns of this person (he worries because he never gets high), this is a constant, dynamically meaningful preoccupation with him and carries much psychical energy. In colloquial terms, Sam has had "one of his buttons pushed," even though there was no "good" reason for it to be pushed. Uncontrolled attention/awareness energy activated a structure to which other psychological/emotional energy was connected. Now we begin t o deal not just with simple information but with information that is emotionally important. In this particular example, this information is activating and has a negative, depressed quality. At time T3, when this prepotent need is activated, psychical energy flows into the main focus of consciousness. Also, the activation of this prepotent need/drive activates, by habit, a particular chain of associations centered around the idea that PEOPLE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ME. This kind of associational content also begins to flow into the main focus of consciousness at time T3.
    Now let us look closely at time T3 in terms of the primary focus of consciousness. In terms of how we have defined relatively clear functioning of this system of consciousness, the information Hi, my should be and is being delivered from the previous moment of consciousness at time T2 to provide continuity. However, the relatively irrelevant association of money and the price of things, represented by the dollar sign, is also being delivered as if it were primary meaning, coming from the preceding primary focus of consciousness, even though it actually represents associational meaning that has slipped in. Because it was not clearly perceived as an association in the first place, it gets mixed up with the primary perceptions as memory transfers it from T2 to T3. A general activation energy of negative tone is flowing in from the prepotent need that is active at this time as well as the associational contents that PEOPLE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ME. Because of the highly charged energy that goes with these associational contents, the primary focus of consciousness at time T3 is labeled semidelusion; the primary focus of Sam's consciousness now begins to center around associational material while under the mistaken impression that it is centering around actual information coming in from the world. By identification with this associational material and the prepotent need activated, Sam begins to live in his associations, in a kind of (day) dream rather than in a clear perception of the world.
    Psychologists are well aware of the phenomenon known as perceptual defense, of the selectivity of perception, of the fact that we more readily see what we want to see, tend not to see what we do not want to see, and/or distort what we do perceive into what we would to perceive. What we would "like to" perceive may often seem unpleasant, yet it has secondary advantages insofar as it is supportive of the ego structure.
    To indicate distortion of perception, a partial misperception of the actual stimulus is shown (the word name at time T3) in that the a gets dropped out of name as it enters primary consciousness. While much of the original stimulus gets through and provides materials (in this case the other letters) for later processing, some of it drops out. This process of filtering perceptions, rejecting some things, distorting others, is a major characteristic of samsara. We tend to perceive selectively those elements of situations that support our preexisting beliefs and feelings.
    Having reached a state of semidelusion, we now see that instead of the real information Hi, my name, a distorted mixture is being transmitted, consisting of some of the actual information hat came in plus some of the associations and emotional energy that have come via the associations. Some fragments of stimuli coming in are being distorted to fit in with the beginnings of delusion brought about by the prepotent need and associational chains. Thus the S quality of the dollar sign $ becomes more an S, and the Hi turns into a HIS, and the my then becomes opposed to the HIS in a classic dichotomy. The letters m and e from name now stand in isolation, affected by the emotional charge of the dichotomy HIS and my, so it becomes HIS and ME. Because of the intensity added by the flow of energy at time T3, all the components of stimuli may be arranged to spell the word ENEMY, further reinforcing the HIS-my dichotomy. Elements of the situation are automatically reworked by the Input-Processing subsystem to fit the emerging theme of consciousness.
    Thus at time T4 the primary focus of consciousness may be considered fully delusional in the sense that the internal, charged processes, the associational and emotional processes, distort perception so greatly that we can truly speak of Sam as being deluded or out of contact with the world. We now not only have selective perception in the sense of filtering and rejection, shown as the fourth stimulus word is being totally rejected here, but we now begin to get the psychological process known as projection, where internal processes become so strong that they are projected onto the environment and wrongly perceived as actual perceptions. Internal processes and memories are fed back into Input-Processing and reemerge in awareness with the quality of perception added. In this case the feelings about the conflict between HIS and my and about ENEMY and about PEOPLE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ME now begin to be experienced as stimuli coming in from the environment, rather than as internal associations. Other associational chains dealing with DANGER are triggered by this process, including one, discussed later, that keeps out competing associations that do not fit it with the delusional scheme.
    By the time the stage of projection of delusions with the negative content of ENEMY and PEOPLE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ME is reached, we tap into Sam's general energy sources and get an overall activation. It is not only that he has some specific need to think that people take advantage of him, he has now become so convinced that someone is actually taking advantage of him that he gets generally activated, generally uptight, in order to deal with this danger! this general up-tightness not only pours a great deal of energy into the specific focus of consciousness, it also acts as positive feedback, reinforcing the prepotent need to blame others for not getting high that started the whole chain in the first place. The fact that Sam now clearly feels himself getting up-tight as this general energy flows into him acts as a justification for the need to worry about people taking advantage of him in the first place, further reinforcing the whole delusion. He would not feel so up-tight unless something were wrong, would he?
    Thus by time T5, when the real stimulus is simply the name Bill, Sam's primary conscious awareness is more a picture of a dangerous warrior attacking, with the whole dichotomy of HIM versus ME in the fore. This is not a simple "cognitive" content, but is charged with energy and emotion, as represented by the spikes on his shield and helmet. Further rejection and distortion of actual input occur to enhance the delusional system. This is shown as t he B being rejected from Bill and the internal processes adding a K, so that Sam in real sense hears this stranger say the word KILL. This again is projection of a delusion that is mistaken for actual sensory input.
    The same DANGER associational chains triggered off in time T4 continue to be triggered off. A pair of associational chains that were separate are shown linked up to represent a tendency for the delusion to further draw together internal structures and so consolidate itself.
    Now at this point we would certainly be tempted to say that Sam is a paranoid psychotic, so out of touch with reality that he should be institutionalized (unless is particular culture values that sort of thing and instead makes him president). But this might not actually true in social terms: there might be strong, built-in inhibitions in the structure of his mind against expressing hostility, and/or such strong conditionings to act nicely, that Sam would make some sort of socially appropriate response even though he was internally seething with fear and anger and hatred.
    At this point Sam is clearly in a state that can well be called samsara or waking dream.
    The fact that conditioned inhibitions may keep a person from acting in a socially inappropriate way should remind us that this process is not an exaggeration that has no application to you and me. Some of our own processes may be just as distorted and intense. Although processes have been intensified to a paranoid, psychotic level in this illustration to make points clearer, my own studies of psychological data, plus my own observation of myself, have convinced me that this is the basic nature of much of our ordinary consciousness.
    The presentation of samsara so far has been oversimplified by assuming there is only one prepotent need or drive that motivates us. Most of us have many such drives. Let us add a second drive to produce a state of conflict and further show the nature of samsara. Suppose after the activation of the prepotent need to blame others at time T3, these associations themselves activate further associations to the effect YOU'RE BEING PARANOID, and this in turn activates a need not to be paranoid. This latter need might arise from a healthy understanding of oneself, or it might arise from the same kind of mechanical, social conditioning that governs the rest of the process. We need not consider the source of this need at the moment, but can simply say that it activates some further associations on the order of DON'T TAKE PARANOIA SERIOUSLY, along with energy from the second prepotent need.
    Figure 19-1 shows these associations of not taking paranoia seriously trying to affect the primary content of consciousness in time T4, but, because Sam is already in a highly delusional state and his consciousness is completely filled with highly energetic paranoid associations, this conflicting associational message cannot influence his consciousness. The particular route by which it tries to enter is blocked by the associations triggered off by the primary, delusional consciousness. There is no conscious conflict.[2]
    The same association DON'T TAKE PARANOIA SERIOUSLY continues to be put out at time T5 and, by coming into the focus of consciousness by a different route, actually gains some awareness. There is now a conflict situation: Sam "know" that this very dangerous person may be threatening to kill him, and another part of him is saying that he is being paranoid and should not take this kind of paranoia seriously.
    Time T6 is shown as a question mark because we do not know what the resolution of this conflict will be. If the bulk of energy and contents of consciousness are taken up by the paranoid delusion, the thought DON'T TAKE PARANOIA SERIOUSLY may simply be wiped out or repressed for lack of energy to compete with the delusion.
    This, then, is a picture of samsara in six consecutive instants of time. The process, of course, does not stop with six instants of time; it continues through one's lifetime. The consensus reality in which a person lives limits the reality that impinges on him: the physical world is generally known; people generally act toward him in "normal" ways. The internalization of consensus reality he learned during enculturation, his "normal" d-SoC, matches the socially maintained consensus reality. so culturally valued experiences continue to happen to him. This is shown schematically in Figure 19-2.
    The horizontal axis represents the flow of time, bringing an ever-changing succession of events, people, interactions, things. The wheel rolling along the axis of time is you. The culturally conditioned selectivity of your perceptions and logics and actions is like a set of selective filters around the periphery of the wheel. If the right filter is activated (perceptual readiness) when a corresponding event occurs, you perceive, experience, and react to it in accordance with your ordinary d-SoC structure (which includes your personality structure). If the current interplay of your prepotent needs and associated structures does not produce a perceptual readiness to notice and respond to the way reality is stimulating you at the moment, you may not perceive an event at all, or perceive it in distorted form, as in the example of what can happen to "Hi, my name is Bill." In terms of Figure 19-2, you have the appropriate perceptual category built in, but the dynamic configuration of your mind, the position of that category on the wheel, is not right.
    Some kinds of experiences are actively blocked by enculturation, not simply passively neglected: these are represented by a pair of bars between some categories within the wheel and the rim of the wheel. You will not experience certain kinds of things, even if they are happening, unless you are subjected to drastic pressures, internal or external.
    Similar structures inside the wheel are shown is interconnected. Recall from the earlier discussion of loading and other kind of stabilization that attention/awareness energy is constantly flowing back and forth, around and around in familiar, habitual paths. This means that much of the variety and richness of life is filtered out. An actual event, triggering off a certain category of experience, activating a certain structure, is rapidly lost as the internal processes connected with that structure and its associated structures and prepotent needs take over the energy of the system. Thus, the word Hi triggers such processes in our hypothetical person, Sam, as do similar words like HIGH whenever they occur. His dynamically interacting, energy-consuming network of structures and needs insulates him from the real world.
    Similarly, if your cultural conditioning has not given you any categories as part of the Input-Processing subsystem to recognize certain events, you may simply not perceive them. Thus real events are shown on the time axis that have no corresponding categories in the person; so the wheel of your life rolls over these events hardly noticing them, perhaps with only a moment of puzzlement before your more "important' internal needs and preoccupations cause you to dismiss the unusual.
    Figure 19-2 depicts cracks in the continuum, following Pearce's analogy of looking for cracks—ways out—in the cosmic egg of your culture. A crack may be a totally uncanny event, something for which you have no conditioned categories, a chance to see in don Juan's sense. If you experience such an event, though, the cultural pressures, both from others and from the enculturated structures built up within you, will probably force you to forget it, to explain away its significance. If you experience something everybody knows cannot happen, you must be crazy; but if you do not tell anyone and forget about it yourself, you will be okay.
    Shah {56, pp. 21-23} records a Sufi story, "When the Waters Were Changed," that illustrates this:
    Once upon a time Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world which had not been specially hoarded, would disappear. it would then be renewed, with different water, which would drive men mad.
    Only one man listened to the meaning of this advice. He collected water and went to a secure place where he stored it, and waited for the water to change its character.
    On the appointed date the streams stopped running, the wells went dry, and the man who had listened, seeing this happening, went to his retreat and drank his preserved water.
    When he saw, from his security, the waterfalls again beginning to flow, this man descended among the other sons of men. He found that they were thinking and talking an entirely different way from before; yet they had no memory of what had happened, nor of having been warned. When he tried to talk to them, he realized that they thought he was mad, and they showed hostility or compassion, not understanding.
    At first he drank none of the new water, but went back to his concealment, to draw on his supplies, every day. Finally, however, he took the decision to drink the new water because he could not bear the loneliness of living, behaving and thinking in a different way from everyone else. He drank the new water, and became like the rest. Then he forgot all about his own store of special water, and his fellows began to look upon him as a madman who had miraculously been restored to sanity.
    Finally, in Figure 19-2 time's arrow is shown as turned back upon itself to form a closed loop. This illustrates the conservative character of culture, the social pressure to keep things within the known. Events from outside the consensus reality are shown as deflected from entering it. This does not mean that no change is tolerated; it indicates that while outward forms of some things may change there is immense resistance to radical change. Fundamental assumptions of the consensus reality are strongly defended.
    Fortunately we do make contact with reality at times. There are forces for real change in culture so the conservative forces do not always succeed. I have great faith in science as a unique force for constantly questioning the limits of consensus reality (at least in the long run), for deliberately looking for cracks in the cosmic egg that open on to vast new vistas. But, far more than we would like to admit, our lives can be mainly or completely tightly bounded wheels, rolling mechanically along the track of consensus reality.
    This is a brief sketch of the way one's whole lifetime in a "normal" d-SoC can be a state of samsara. I cannot yet write more about it. I recommend Pearce's book, Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg {50}, for a brilliant analysis of the way our culture can trap us in its consensus reality, even when we believe we are rebelling.



    [1] I use the Buddhist term samsara in a general sense to indicate a d-SoC (ordinary or nonordinary) dominated by illusion, as detailed throughout this chapter, rather than in a technically strict Buddhist sense. I express my appreciation to Tarthong Tulku, Rinpoche, for helping me understand the Buddhist view. (back)
    [2] Note an implicit, quantitative assumption here that in the competition of two processes, whichever has the greater energy (both attention/awareness energy and other kinds of energies) wins, subject to modification by the particulars of the structures involved. Certain structures may use energy more effectively than others. This line of thought needs development. (back)

Figure 19-1. Development of samsaric consciousness. (back)

Figure 19-2. The wheel of an individual's life rolling through consensus reality. (back)


Chapter 20

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