Waking Up in Time

Dehypnosis - Breaking the Trance

The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.

Gloria Steinem

In the preceding chapters we have considered how humanity’s preoccupation with material progress and outer achievement can be seen as a form of cultural conditioning. The values imparted to us through our upbringing, education, and social experience have seduced us into a set of assumptions about what is important, what we need, and what will bring us fulfillment. As a result we behave as if inner peace and happiness come from what we have and do.

Most of us can see the fallacy in this approach. We know that whether or not we remain calm in a particular situation depends as much on how we perceive and interpret events as on the events themselves. But our conditioning is so pervasive that for much of the time our inner knowing remains hidden.


The Hidden Observer

A parallel phenomenon occurs in hypnosis. In an experiment conducted at Stanford University by one of the pioneers of hypnosis research, Dr. Ernest Hilgard, a subject was told that his left hand would feel no pain when placed in a bucket of ice-cold water. Anyone who has ever experienced ice-cold water will know that this can be very painful indeed, yet the subject reported that he felt fine; there was no pain. The hypnosis, it would seem, had been successful.

The subject was then asked to allow his right hand to engage in some “automatic writing” -- that is, without looking, to let the hand simply write anything it wanted. He started writing, “It’s freezing.” “Ouch.” “It hurts.” “Take my hand out.” Although the hypnosis had elicited the desired behavior it had not, apparently, been able to override a deeper level of truth.

Hilgard called the unhypnotized part of the mind, the part that still felt the pain, the “hidden observer.” His subjects described it as “the part of me that looks at what is, and doesn’t judge it,” and “more like my real self, only more objective. When I’m in hypnosis, I’m imagining, letting myself pretend, but somewhere the hidden observer knows what’s really going on.”

The same would seem to happen with our search for a more satisfying state of mind. The hidden observer within us knows that the key to fulfillment lies within. Yet this knowledge rarely comes to the surface and most of us continue to “pretend” that outer well-being is the best path to inner fulfillment.

Until, that is, we engage in some automatic writing (or “channeling” as some are wont to call it), when we may find ourselves expressing truths we did not know we knew. Or our hidden observer may reveal itself in other ways. It may speak to us in our dreams as images symbolic of our inner knowing. We may recognize the folly of our ways in times of deep reflection. Or liberated from our conditioned responses by a glass or two of wine we may temporarily glimpse the inanity of the games we play.

It is as if a voice is there within us aching to be heard, but it cannot get past the clamor of our conditioned thinking. The self-talk of the ego-mind is so busy describing what is happening, judging whether it is good or bad for us, and telling us what we should think and do, that there is little opportunity for our inner knowing to be heard. Instead we remain attached to our illusions, dreaming of the fulfillment we believe they will bring.


Clinical Versus Cultural Hypnosis

If we are to deal with the root cause of the crises now confronting us we must awaken from our trance and regain a fuller contact with our own inner wisdom. We need the cultural equivalent of dehypnosis. But while waking from ordinary hypnosis is a simple matter -- the hypnotist may count to three, click his fingers, and simply tell you to wake up -- awakening from our cultural trance is not nearly so simple.

For a start, there is no hypnotist standing by our side to awaken us. Most of our conditioning occurred long ago -- much of it before we could speak or remember. And it has come through many different sources: parents, teachers, friends, strangers, books, magazines, radio, television, films, advertising. It is part of the fabric of our society. No single person was responsible.

Another very important difference between clinical and cultural hypnosis concerns the depth of the conditioning. In his book, Waking Up, the psychologist Charles Tart shows that ordinary hypnosis is a voluntary and limited relationship between consenting adults. The power given to the hypnotist is limited by time -- usually to an hour or two -- and by various ethical constraints -- the subject does not expect to be bullied, threatened, or harmed. If the hypnosis does not work very well, the subject is not blamed. And, although profound changes may occur for a short while, no basic or long-term shifts in personality or “reality” are expected of the subject -- other than, perhaps, the relinquishing of some unwanted habit.

With our cultural conditioning the situation is the opposite.

  • Our consensus trance is not voluntary; it begins at birth without our conscious agreement.

  • All authority is surrendered to the parents, family members and other caretakers, who initially are regarded as omniscient and omnipotent.

  • Induction is not limited to short sessions; it involves years of repeated reinforcement.

  • Clinical therapists would consider it highly unethical to use force, but our cultural hypnotists often do -- a slap on the wrist, or severe reprimand for misbehaving. Or perhaps more subtle, but equally powerful, emotional pressures -- “I will only love you if you think and behave as I tell you.”

  • Finally, and most significantly, the conditioning is intended to be permanent. It may come from the very best of intentions, but it is, nevertheless, meant to have a lasting effect on our personalities and the way we evaluate the world.

This is why awakening from our cultural trance entails far more than a simple snapping of the fingers. There is a lifetime’s worth of extremely powerful induction to be overcome.

We would seem to be firmly stuck with our conditioning. Indeed, for most of the time we are. Yet there are occasions when we do wake up, and see things in a different light. In those moments we are given a glimpse of what is possible.

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