Dr. Charles T. Tart, one of the world’s foremost experts on altered states of consciousness, thinks that most of us walk around all day in a trance — a daze, a stupor, a sleeplike state wherein our behavior is automatically driven by neurosis and cultural conditioning, with little intervention by our conscious will. At the same time, this “consensus trance,” as Tart calls it, masks and neutralizes the higher powers of consciousness that should serve to distinguish the human being from, say, a state-of-the-art VCR.

“Compared to what we could be,” Tart has written, “we are disspirited, mechanical, conditioned, automatized. We have created and we actively maintain a world of unnecessary stupidities and horrors.” But this scientist’s solution for our world of pain is neither a political agenda nor a call for more logical thinking. As Tart puts it, “The relief from suffering that comes from a direct knowledge that the universe is meaningful is far more profound than any other kind of specific problem-oriented relief.”

Tart’s single-spaced, thirty-page curriculum vitae could derail a train. It lists eleven published books (including the classic Altered States of Consciousness), twenty-nine audiotapes, and a multitude of articles, chapters, letters, reviews, and scientific papers. His academic history begins with three degrees from the University of North Carolina, including the doctorate in psychology he earned in 1963, and culminates in twenty-two years as a professor at the University of California at Davis, where he still teaches. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for Scientific Exploration, and the Sausalito-based Institute of Noetic Sciences, and has been included in “American Men And Women Of Science,” “International Authors And Writers Who’s Who,” “Who’s Who In The West,” and “Men Of Eminence.”

All this, and he’s still a nice guy. I could tell even over the phone, when we were arranging our pre-interview meeting and exchanging clues for mutual identification. He told a funny story about being recognized. He had recently attended a meditation retreat during which someone told the teacher, “Dr. Tart, the eminent expert on consciousness, is here.” When the teacher met Tart, he said, “I was told you were here, and I looked all around until I saw someone who looked like a distinguished scientist. But it wasn’t you.”

Perhaps what distinguishes the fifty-year-old Tart from any other scientist with such a formidable academic record is that he has actually used his lifelong study of consciousness — encompassing dream research, psychedelic drugs, meditation, transpersonal psychology, parapsychology, and the practice of the martial art aikido (in which he has earned a black belt) — to achieve an awareness that transcends mere intellectual acuity. His studies began in the field of hypnosis, but he told me his interest in hypnotizing people has lessened: “I’d rather de-hypnotize them.” To that end, his latest book is entitled Waking Up: Overcoming The Obstacles To Human Potential (an Institute of Noetic Sciences Book published by Shambhala Publications, 1986). It introduces to a popular readership the dense and intense theories of the Russian mystic, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and provides experiential exercises that take the pursuit of enlightenment from the theoretical realm to the practical.

During lunch I watched as Tart carefully inserted a napkin between his coffee cup and saucer to absorb a small amount of spilled liquid; here was a man who valued meticulous attention to detail, clearly a factor in his methodology. But I was also struck by his admission of the occasional inadequacy of his methodology, when we compared our experiences of the rapidly-spreading consciousness discipline known as A Course In Miracles. “The Course really comes in at a right angle to most of my professional work,” he remarked. “I can find a lot of stuff in there that fits my understanding of how we ‘live in illusion’ — that is, how we use psychological defense mechanisms that distort our perceptions and create trouble, and so on. But basically the Course goes right for the heart, and the heart is not a standard part of scientific discipline. So it’s been tough for me.”

Later, at Tart’s home in Berkeley, I saw his less meticulous side: his office was filled to overflowing with piles of papers, two computers and assorted paraphernalia, and no less than three studio microphones hooked up to a stack of sophisticated audio equipment. Tacked onto one shelf of papers was a large computer print-out of the warning, “YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP YOUR JOB WHEN YOU DIE.” To the accompaniment of a periodic electronic beep from an unidentified source, we began the following discussion about happiness, the practical nature of enlightenment, and the relationship of science to spirituality.

— D. Patrick Miller

THE SUN: What is your book Waking Up about?

TART: It’s about what most serious books are about. It addresses the question, “How can we be happy?” — which I think is of considerable interest to most people. It’s one approach among many — an approach based on the observation that we don’t actually manifest the abilities we credit ourselves with having.

We think, for instance, that we’re intelligent, rational people in touch with the world around us, in control of ourselves and able to do what we desire. But on closer inspection, our intelligence turns out to be very spotty, significantly distorted in certain ways. Our will is very small; we often can’t carry out what we want to do, and instead do what we don’t want to do. And we’re in very poor contact with the world around us; we’re mainly in contact with our fantasies, and our conceptions of the world. So you can see that it’s no wonder we’re unhappy: we’re people with our eyes closed, running around at full speed, bumping into things and each other, and wondering why it hurts. So Waking Up is about the nature of that condition, and what we can do about it, how we can actually come to have the things we credit ourselves with having: will, intelligence, and perception.


THE SUN: You’ve said that one way to tell that you’re walking around in the “consensus trance” is by your suffering. How do you distinguish this suffering from the hardship that happens to everyone?

TART: Most suffering is unreal. It’s not unreal in the sense that it doesn’t hurt, but it’s self-created suffering. If I believe that I am a sharp dresser, and that’s important to me, then if someone criticizes the way I dress, I get hurt. If I don’t have that self-image, that remark wouldn’t mean a thing to me. We set up our own suffering in that way, but the setting-up is largely involuntary; it’s set up by cultural conditioning, by the values our parents gave us, and the values their parents gave them, and so forth — so much of it happens automatically. That’s the horror of most human suffering: it happens automatically. It’s like a big machine that’s been put in motion and is hard to stop.

THE SUN: Is it hard to stop because people would rather not recognize their suffering?

TART: That’s right. We’ve developed artificial ways to escape our suffering, by getting involved in certain ideas and feelings about things; plus there’s the very common delusion that we are in control. Another very useful half-truth is that our suffering is other people’s fault. Other people certainly do things that seem to be the immediate cause of our suffering, but most of the time it’s our reactions to what other people do that causes our suffering. But we can potentially do something about our reactions.

We can recognize our suffering at several levels. Gross suffering is a gross sign, OK. But how useful it is to people depends on how much they apply their intelligence to the situation — not just intelligence in a verbal sense, but how closely they pay attention to exactly what their suffering is about. We have ideas about what makes us suffer that obscure the actual causes; naturally, not dealing with actual causes means not fundamentally dealing with our suffering. For example, you may be very angry at most other people, thinking that everyone causes you pain, but it could be that the real problem is your self-concept: “I’m not good enough.” Now that’s a very common self-concept. If you face it directly, it’s very depressing; and anger feels better than depression. So if you start looking for all the people who are doing you wrong, you can stay angry at them and avoid having to look at your depression. Then your anger gets you into trouble with these people, and they do things to you which indeed are negative. The longer you avoid your depression, the longer you can continue to achieve whole new levels of suffering through your anger. You would have to apply observation, with or without the help of a therapist, to begin to realize how anger masks the deeper feeling of depression. Until you can see that, there’s not much hope of doing anything about your suffering.

It is hard to know you’re in consensus trance until you already know it. I know that sounds paradoxical. But if you’re motivated to begin observing yourself you can notice funny little things about your illogical functioning. Those are little inklings, and those inklings can, in turn, motivate you more. If you’re then lucky enough to get the idea that maybe it’s time for some fundamental self-scrutiny — that all sorts of things in your life need to be observed more closely (and not just the ones that bother you the most) — then you can find or develop a systematic method for self-observation. That’s what I’m offering in Waking Up. Then you begin to have direct data, from your own observation, that may indicate that most of the time you do indeed walk around in a kind of trance, an automatic state of reaction rather than a true creative state. That automatic state is one in which your natural vitality is being grabbed by your immediate reactions to events, instead of being used intelligently in a way you would like to use it.

When you first begin that kind of self-observation, it’s generally quite hard on you. That’s why many people do not want to observe themselves. So another element required to recognize the consensus trance is courage, the courage to keep hanging in there even as you start to see things about yourself that you don’t like. Not that it’s all a matter of seeing things you don’t like; a lot of the best aspects of ourselves are also buried, lost in the consensus trance. But it takes courage to realize, for instance, that you may have been living a life mostly programmed by other people — a life that has nothing to do with your real needs.

You always have to remember that the truth you see is your experience of truth, and resist the intellectual temptation to say, “This is eternal truth.” You have to keep looking, because truth may change in five minutes. As soon as you think you’ve finally gotten it, you’ve blown it.

THE SUN: That would seem to be one of the awakening factors contributed by feminism over the last twenty years.

TART: Yes, that’s a specific example of how a social movement has served to help women become aware of how much of their lives may have been forced upon them. Another mechanism observable in our society is called “the mid-life crisis,” wherein a lot of people reaching the middle of their lives realize that what they’re doing isn’t meaningful — it’s not them. That’s a horrible insight, so a lot of people turn to drink, drugs, workaholism, anything to keep them from noticing the problem. Of course these are solutions that just create more trouble.


THE SUN: When I became seriously ill and entered therapy at the age of thirty, my counselor suggested that I was having an early mid-life crisis, and told me he was noticing more people my age coming in with that kind of crisis — perhaps because the Seventies generation grew up disillusioned.

TART: I guess that’s progress.


THE SUN: Maybe. I just don’t want to do it again when I’m forty-five.

TART: That’s actually a dangerous hope. I’ve learned that the desire to avoid pain or crisis, even though it seems like a natural desire, can easily screw up the functioning of your mind so that it creates suffering. We think the Constitution entitles us to the “pursuit of happiness”; but if we pursue happiness, with a feverish desire to have only good things happen — which may seem sensible on the surface — then our minds get programmed to distort our perceptions. As a result, we tend not to notice things that make us unhappy, and get overly sensitive to things we think will make us happy — so that we see the things we want to happen even when they’re not actually happening. That means again that we’re out of touch with reality, which leads to more trouble.

You can develop a different attitude, without such an attachment to pleasure or extreme avoidance of pain — a willingness to be here, now, and experience reality as it is. The interesting thing about this attitude is that it brings a lot more happiness that doesn’t create pain as a reaction. It’s a gentle happiness that doesn’t make you force the world into a mold; you relate to people from a richer, more decent place, and you get richer, more decent relationships. It’s a more ecologically sound happiness, I would say.

Now a person who’s more awake may experience suffering; there is real suffering in the world — people who are homeless, ill, dying — and if you’re more in the here and now, you see that more than when you automatically turned away to avoid noticing it. It can be very frustrating to see suffering and know there’s nothing you can do about it. But if there is something you can do, you’ll do it more effectively.


THE SUN: There seems to be a belief in our culture that “waking up,” or enlightenment, means a permanently altered state of consciousness, where you don’t even deal with “the real world.”

TART: It’s true that many people regard the spiritual life as a strange altered state where you can’t tie your own shoelaces. There are such intermediate phenomena; some of them are actually aberrations. But enlightenment, as I understand it, involves a knowing of the ultimate nature of things, or a merging with that ultimate nature; you still have to go to the bathroom, drive your car, and so on. In the ordinary world, a real enlightenment enables you to pay more attention, to see more precisely, to act more effectively; at the same time, you maintain a perspective that while this is what’s happening in the moment, it’s a small thing in infinity.

Let’s say you go to get something at the store and the clerk is in a bad mood, waiting on you too slowly, not treating you like a VIP. If you have no enlightenment, and you’re trapped in ordinary consciousness, you may find your self-image threatened: you get angry, a big fight develops, your day is ruined, and you have to call the manager to get the clerk fired. All of this happened because the clerk was a little slow in waiting on you. With some degree of enlightenment, you would perceive that the clerk was simply in a bad mood. You would also perceive that this situation wasn’t worth more than a moment’s notice — a perspective that balances the eternal and the now. The result is perhaps that you empathize with the clerk and treat him a little more kindly, even if he’s affronted you; that puts him in a better mood, and you haven’t lost your vitality. Now that’s not the whole story of enlightenment, but it’s an important part of it, and it’s damned practical.

A temporary aberration of enlightenment is walking around in a floating kind of happiness, like being high on something, so that you don’t notice the world around you. If you’re unhappy, I suppose that sounds pretty good, but it can’t be a lasting goal because, in that state, you can’t be effective in the world. If I’m walking along the street and a kid runs out in front of a car, I don’t want to be filled with cosmic bliss and see only the allness of suchness. I want to be present enough to jump out there and snatch the kid back, even if I hurt his arm in the process — that’s better than letting him be run over.

The world’s spiritual traditions are also filled with stories of enlightened people who were extremely effective in the world. I recently read about S.N. Goenka, a very famous teacher of insight meditation who also served as the finance minister of Burma. He took an incredibly corrupt bureaucracy and cleaned up the whole thing while teaching meditation on the side. When he reached sixty-five, the Parliament passed a law saying that all civil servants were required to retire at sixty-five — except him. They had to have him. This was an enlightened person who was incredibly effective in business and politics.


THE SUN: How do you define altered states of consciousness?

TART: Whoa! You’re talking to a man who’s been writing to the scientific world for twenty years about how you define these things, and what the words mean. My definitions change as I understand things better, but let me fall back on my own authority. In States of Consciousness, I spent a lot of effort on that definition. Here’s something from that book:

“Our ordinary state of consciousness is not something natural or given, but a highly complex construction, a specialized tool for coping with our environment and the people in it — a tool that’s useful for some things, but not very useful, or even dangerous, for other things.”

Our consciousness is not natural; it’s a construction. Part of the construction process is that we are told consciousness is natural and rational and normal; but it’s not. It’s a semi-arbitrary construction: it depends on the culture you’re brought up in, your parents, your particular experiences. It’s not totally arbitrary; we do have a physical world to deal with, but once you get beyond the basic physical coping, there’s enormous flexibility in how you perceive the world, how you think about it, how you act.

An altered state is a drastic change in the pattern of how your consciousness functions. A dream is an altered state, of course. If you think about the way your mind functions when you’re dreaming, you see that the whole style is different. And you can easily tell which is which. If I ask people in my classes if they’re dreaming, they say no. A few wise guys get philosophical and say, “Well, I don’t know”; but if I say, “Will you bet me fifty dollars that you’ll wake up in bed at home in five minutes?” nobody takes me up on it.

An altered state is like a different tool. Any tool has good and bad points. For instance, a power saw is a rotten tool when you need to drive in nails. You’d do much better with a hammer. Altered states are valuable to us because certain very important questions — like the meaning of life, and your place in it — can’t be answered if you’re working only with the ordinary state of consciousness. You have to have experiences in some altered states, maybe induced by meditation, or drugs, or the emotions aroused in crisis situations. When your mind is working in a different mode, it can suddenly see a question in a totally different way, and get an answer.

Let’s look at religions. I’m going to generalize a moment and put them into two categories. In one category, the founder; had an altered-state experience thousands of years ago, and since then the followers haven’t been allowed to have altered-state experiences; they’re told what the founder’s conclusions were and they better believe them, or else. In the other kind of religion, it’s understood that hearing a disciple’s comments on the neighbor’s letters to the master’s cousin does not convey the actual experience; so what is taught is a technology, like meditation technique, for directly experiencing certain important realities. Thus, you’re reminded that just because you have the words about something, you don’t necessarily understand it; you have to experience the reality yourself.

This is why altered states are so important in our time, because our conventional religions are largely the “believe it or else” kind. They give you a watered-down, tepid spirituality that’s not up to snuff for the modern life. That’s why we’ve gotten interested in drugs, Eastern religions, meditation: people want to know for themselves, “Why am I here?” And you can’t get that knowledge strictly through the intellectual function. I’m all for logic, but if that’s the only tool you have, you’re in a pickle. You have to have emotional intelligence, intuitive intelligence, and altered states available to pursue the richness of human life.

People can get intellectually drunk on ideas about awakening. Some teachers are like that, talking a mile a minute about enlightenment, with no emotional or intuitive strength behind them.

THE SUN: Why do you think we’re so susceptible to “television trance”? The average American television is on seven hours a day, which indicates a widespread addiction to a degraded altered state.

TART: It goes back to the existential neurosis we were discussing earlier. Many people now have a partial awareness that the values of our society are not sufficient; these values do not recognize the fullness of human nature. But it’s not clear to most people that there’s any kind of alternative, so you have to distract yourself to avoid the problem.

In my workshops I often have people go through an experiential exercise where I ask them to stand with their hands over their hearts, and recite something I call “The Western Creed” [see opposite column] as if it were a pledge of allegiance. This is a perspective you’ll find in almost any science book, and I wrote it up as a deliberate parody of the Apostles’ Creed.

By and large, it depresses the hell out of people, especially when they realize that they believe a lot of it, and that these beliefs are culturally reinforced. I should say that I happen to love science — I’m a working scientist. As Abraham Maslow said, science can be a marvelous opening-to-growth system if you use it right; or it can be one of the best neurotic defense mechanisms. Science seems to have degenerated into scientism, which is a functioning religion for many people. This scientism has predominated in our society for a while, and it’s extremely depressing.

Science functions as 3 revealed religion for most scientists. It’s supposed to be about constantly testing things, but typical scientists don’t test 99.996 of what they’re told is scientific truth; they accept it on authority. Even in their own fields, they probably never test the fundamentals. And I think it’s dangerous to create any religion unconsciously that has psychologically unhealthy effects on us; I think we should be aware of what we’re doing.


THE SUN: It’s known that if you give coffee to a drunk, you get a wide-awake drunk. Do you think people get high on the idea of enlightenment without actually experiencing an awakening?

TART: People can get intellectually drunk on ideas about awakening. Some teachers are like that, talking a mile a minute about enlightenment, with no emotional or intuitive strength behind them. Such teachers can attract a lot of followers, because a lot of people love to get drunk on ideas. I’m speaking personally, because I’m a reformed intellectual drunk myself. I spent much of my life getting drunk on ideas, and getting others drunk — and I’m good at it.

But that kind of intellectual intoxication is actually strongly emotional. Think of the last time you saw a couple of intellectuals arguing. I’ll bet the discussion was really heated and vociferous. But intellect is cool, right? Why is all that emotional energy in there? Why are these people getting red in the face over this supposedly intellectual disagreement? That is not a smart use of emotional energy; it’s an indirect or perverted use of it that blinds them to actual reality.

This reminds me of a story about D.T. Suzuki, who was so instrumental in bringing Zen to the West. Once when he was very old, Suzuki attended a world conference on religions held in Europe. He had been sitting around with his eyes half-closed, seeming not to pay attention; most of the delegates figured, “There’s an old man snoozing his life away; his enlightenment is just a sleepy, self-absorbed trance.” They were sitting around a big conference table when a sudden breeze blew in the window, and the speaker’s papers were blown down the table. By the time all the others opened their mouths to gape, Suzuki had already calmly reached out and grabbed the papers as they blew by. So the spiritual life can have a real practical side; this is how you distinguish it from self-intoxication or the intoxication with ideas.


THE SUN: I’ve noticed that intense intellectual discussions leave me feeling kind of disembodied.

TART: That’s why I like aikido. For me, it provides immediate feedback training in actually being present. Many times I’ve stood out on the mat with a partner, essentially daydreaming that I’m a real samurai warrior. Suddenly my partner’s fist almost hits me before I notice it. I twitch and jerk and come up with some kind of technique, but the movement is rough. When I’m actually doing aikido — being calmly present — there’s plenty of time to notice a fist coming or a hand grabbing, and I can smoothly and harmoniously blend in with it, doing the technique with a loving, cooperative spirit. That’s immediate feedback on whether I’m actually living in the present, or having fantasies about it. That’s a very valuable distinction.


THE SUN: But how do we get the energy to maintain that kind of clarity?

TART: Well, it takes practice, and some courage. It comes from really being dedicated to knowing truth: truth as it is, right this minute, regardless of what I like or don’t like about it, what I expect or don’t expect. You have to cultivate the attitude, “I want to know what is, now.” But you always have to remember that the truth you see is your experience of truth, and resist the intellectual temptation to say, “This is eternal truth.” You have to keep looking, because truth may change in five minutes. As soon as you think you’ve finally gotten it, you’ve blown it.

But I’d like to balance things here. We’ve been talking about the spiritual struggle a lot, and people may get the impression it’s all just hard work and a real drag, work that’s best suited to depressives. But that’s not true. There really is a joy in this process, a psychological, practical effectiveness and happiness that makes awakening worthwhile. It’s like any other endeavor. If you want to be a good pianist, you’ve got to start with hours and hours of practicing scales — what a drag! — and you’re liable to give up right away, because you’re tempted to feel bad about yourself when you make mistakes. But if you’re going to learn to play, you’ve got to go through that. And then one day you sit down at the piano and play wonderful music; people like it, and you feel good.

In consciousness work, you also get the benefit of having more tools to work with. As you break through ordinary consciousness and realize that it’s only one way to see things, you suddenly have two tools, or three or four tools of perception. Then you gain the perspective that you don’t have to be trapped in any particular state of consciousness. If you don’t seem to be making much progress in life from the ordinary state of consciousness, you can realize that you’re not necessarily stuck — you may just need to use the perspective of a more awakened state of consciousness.

This is an excerpt from Charles T. Tart ’s Waking Up: Overcoming The Obstacles To Human Potential (New Science Library/Shambhala, 1986).

— Ed.

Copyright © 1986 by the Institute of Noetic Sciences Reprinted with permission

When we are born, we are a mass of potentials, possibilities waiting to be developed. We are not born into an environment that is completely neutral about our potentials, though, nor into one that will try to develop all of them.

Each of us is born into a culture, a group of people with a shared belief system, a consensus about how things are and how they ought to be. As soon as we are born, the culture, primarily through the agency of the parents, begins to pick and choose among our potentials. Some are considered good and are actively encouraged. “You’re a good girl for telling the teacher about that kid who hit your little brother! I’m proud of you!” Other potentials are considered bad, and their flowering is actively inhibited and punished. “You were a bad girl to hit that boy who hit your brother! Nice little girls don’t do things like that! How can I love you when you do things like that? Go to your room!”

Becoming “normal,” becoming a full-fledged member of your culture, involves a selective shaping, a development of approved (“natural,” “godly,” “polite,” “civil”) potentials, and an inhibition of disapproved “evil,” “criminal,” “delinquent,” “disrespectful”) ones. While it might be theoretically possible to role-play in accordance with social norms 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, automatized way you think and feel, is shaped to reflect the culture’s consensus beliefs and values. Then you will automatically experience the right perceptions and interpretations, and so it will be “natural” to act in the culturally appropriate way, even when there are no agents of social coercion around. When you automatically think, behave, and feel “normally,” when the internal workings of your mind automatically echo most of the values and beliefs of your culture, you have achieved cultural consensus trance. This interlocking set of beliefs includes a belief that we don’t have a “belief system.” Foreigners have strange “beliefs,” but we know what’s right!

Cultures almost never encourage their members to question them. Physical survival has been too precarious for too many people for most of our history, so there is a deep, if implicit, feeling that our culture has kept us alive in a rough world; don’t ask questions, don’t rock the boat. Cultures try to be closed systems.

Yet many intelligent people have come to a realization of the relativity of some of their cultural values through personal experience. In the past those who traveled a lot, and who had the openness to see that not everyone else was a “savage” or “foreigner,” could learn this. Our time is unique in that the enormous amount of anthropological material available on cultural relativity makes this realization much more readily available, even without travel. The kind of self-observation Gurdjieff taught can also help in transcending the limitations of our culture.


Gurdjieff characterized a newborn baby as pure essence. Essence is your genuine, deepest self, your desires, tastes, likes and dislikes, potentials — everything inherent in you before the consensus trance induction process begins to change it. Essence is who we really were when we came into this world.

Obviously we have limited repertoires as newborns. Our characteristics include being good or fitful sleepers, being generally content or irritable, liking certain tastes and not others. Essence also includes, in all those who become normal, the ability to learn a language and absorb a culture. But we are not a tabula rasa, a blank slate, on which the culture can write as it pleases with no consequences to us. We also have our unique genetic and spiritual endowments, which will begin to manifest more as we grow. We might dislike athletics and like walking in the woods, for example, or find the taste of carrots disgusting and like the smell of sweat, or enjoy poetry but find math boring, or search for the inner light in spite of being ridiculed by others.

Consensus trance induction is a process by which the culture shapes the behavior and consciousness of a baby — the subject — to be “normal,” to ensure that there is a high level of standardization of behavior and consciousness in all people. To be American, you must speak good English, you must have reasonably polite manners of the kind peculiar to your culture, you must look both ways before crossing the street, you must respect your parents and teachers, respect the American flag. . . . Add your favorite five thousand beliefs and attitudes here.

We cultural hypnotists do not think of what we do as consensus trance induction, of course. Most of us would be horrified at the idea of inducing a trance that involves less animation and reduced reality contact — a trance that resembles stupor. We sincerely think of what we do with children as “education,” as teaching them skills that they must have in order to live a happy life. We are helping the children, not entrancing them! And this is, of course, true in many ways. A child must learn to look both ways before crossing the street, for example, or he may be killed. Just as an ordinary hypnotist utilizes truths to induce the formal hypnotic trance (your vision does get blurry and you do see changing colors as you stare fixedly at a target), so does the cultural hypnotist utilize many truths in inducing consensus trance.

What happens to essence, the basic and essential you, in the induction of consensus trance?

If you are very lucky, and most of the characteristics of your essence are ones that happen to be valued in your culture, the induction of consensus trance is very smooth and free of conflict. Your adult life will probably be “normal” and successful. If your essence is short-tempered and aggressive, for example, and you happen to be born in a culture that admires warriors who are tough and proud, you may have to deal with the realistic consequences of living in that kind of world, but you won’t agonize over whether you are normal. Suppose your essence is short-tempered and aggressive, but you happen to be born a woman in a culture where women are supposed to be docile and subservient. You may get into a lot of trouble when your temper comes out.

Even worse, this aspect of your essence would probably be invalidated and punished until its 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 tell you you are normal, and would accept you as a friend, reinforcing your docile behavior and reinforcing your internal feeling of goodness. But inside, something, a part of your essence, has been squashed. If it has been squashed very thoroughly, so you don’t even feel that quick temper, you may have only 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.

If the suppression hasn’t been quite so thorough, and you know that many things make you angry, but you can’t or won’t express the anger, then you can worry. “Am I normal? I’m not supposed to feel things like this. Normal women don’t get upset by these situations.” Some of your essential energy has been lost by being tied up in knots; some goes into “neurotic” worrying about not being normal. Again, you have lost some animation.

Let us compare consensus trance induction with the induction of formal hypnotic trance.


A typical hypnotic procedure might be administered in a relatively ordinary setting, a quiet room, a comfortable chair. The thought of being hypnotized adds a little glamour to the setting and procedure, but the usual scientific setting is low key and plays glamour down. The hypnotist may be somewhat older or of higher prestige than the subject, an “expert,” but the hypnotic induction is predominantly a relationship between two normal, competent, and consenting adults.

Although they may not be explicitly discussed, there are clear constraints on the hypnosis: (a) it is time-limited, usually lasting only an hour or two; (b) the subject does not expect to be bullied, threatened, or harmed in any real way by the hypnotist; (c) if the hypnosis does not work very well, the hypnotist will not blame the subject; (d) the hypnosis may work well, producing a deep “trance,” but the subject expects that the effects will be temporary, and he will not be fundamentally changed by his experience.

Consensus trance induction, by contrast, takes place within conditions that give far more power and influence to the cultural hypnotists than is ever given in ordinary hypnosis induction.

First, consensus trance induction does not begin as a voluntary and limited relationship between two knowledgeable adults. It begins with birth. A newborn comes into the world with an immature body and nervous system, totally dependent upon its parents for its very survival, as well as its happiness. There is a sort of natural consent to learn, yet the power relationship puts a strong forced quality on that consent.

While the child will slowly acquire consciousness and capabilities to fill his own needs, the power relationship will remain very unbalanced for many years. Indeed, the power balance is much more like one we imagined and developed in myths — the power balance between gods and mere mortals — than like that between adults. The parents and other agents of the culture, the hypnotists, are relatively omniscient and omnipotent compared to the subject. Thus the setting for consensus trance induction involves much more power on the hypnotists’ side than does that for ordinary hypnosis induction.

Second, consensus trance induction is not limited to an hour’s session. It involves years of repeated inductions and reinforcement of the effects of previous inductions. Given the way children experience time, the cultural hypnotists have forever to work on their subjects. Further, consensus trance is intended to last a lifetime: there are no cultural hypnotists waiting to give you a suggestion to wake up.

Third, ordinary hypnotists cannot use force to persuade their subjects to cooperate in the process of being hypnotized. Indeed, it would be counterproductive in the usual setting. Cultural hypnotists, on the contrary, can use physical threats as needed, and actualize them with slaps, spankings, beatings, revocation of privileges, or confiscation of toys, when necessary. The fear of punishment and pain on the subject’s part makes him very attentive to the desires of the cultural hypnotists and very quick to act in the desired way. Since the easiest way to act in the culturally approved way is to feel that way inside, the fear of punishment helps to structure internal mental and emotional processes that are culturally approved.

Cultural hypnotists are not limited to physical threats and punishment. Since the parents are the major source of love and self-esteem for the subject, they may threaten to withhold love and approval or actually withhold it, until compliance is achieved. “I can’t love such a dirty little boy!” Manipulating the natural love children have for parents is another variation of this: “You wouldn’t do that if you loved Mommy!” Many psychologists have felt that this conditional use of love (I’ll love you if . . .), coupled with invalidation of the child’s own perceptions and feelings, has a far deeper impact than simple physical punishment. Since love and affection are so real and so vital, they are exceptionally powerful manipulators. The fact that there is so much real love in most parent»child relationships creates confusion: when is behavior manipulative and when is it just love? This confusion assists in consensus trance induction.

Fourth, cultural hypnotists can offer love and personal validation as a reward for compliant behavior. “What a sweet thought you had. You’re a good girl. I love you!” “All A’s! You’re so smart!” The ordinary hypnotist can offer approval (“You’re doing fine”), but it seldom has the potency that love and approval from parents have on a child.

The personal validation aspect of consensus trance induction is very important. We all have a “social instinct,” a desire to be accepted by others, to have friends and a place in our social world, to be respected, “normal.” At early ages this acceptance and validation are mediated almost exclusively by parents: they define what being normal means. 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 behaviors become established and rewarded, they further structure the habitual patterns of mental functioning. Fear of rejection is a powerful motivator. All of us probably have some memories of childhood agonies about whether we were “normal.”

Fifth, the subject, the child, is clearly at fault for failing to act in the culturally desired way. “Good girls do their homework!” By not doing your homework, you are a bad girl. Nobody likes being thought bad, so pleasing the cultural hypnotist is much more important than pleasing an ordinary hypnotist. We are invalidated in so many ways and told we are bad so often that a general sense of unworthiness and guilt can easily be built up. New condemnations or invalidations tap into this accumulated guilt, giving the new incident a power beyond that it inherently has. This, in turn, further adds to the underlying feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Myths of original sin make the matter worse.

When we try, as adults — as predominantly verbal thinkers — to understand our enculturation and conditioning, we find it difficult to recall, because it is not stored in verbal form.

Another factor that gives the consensus trance induction process great power is that the mental state of a young child is similar to the mental state of a deeply hypnotized subject in important ways. This increases the power of the “suggestions” made by the cultural hypnotists.

In a deep hypnotic state, for example, the consensus reality orientation has faded into the background. [The consensus reality orientation is “the intellectual framework by which we automatically evaluate our experiences,” so named because it is the “product of our particular culture’s consensus of what is real and important.”] When a particular experience is suggested during hypnosis, the suggestion and resulting experiences occur in relative isolation from other mental processes. When the hypnotist suggests your arm is heavy, a host of previous knowledge about normal arm processes and social situations does not immediately spring to mind and take energy away from the suggestion.

In your ordinary state you have an enormous and automatic tendency to associate previous knowledge with incoming stimuli. When something happens, this automatic association of relevant knowledge helps you decide how to deal with the situation. A man begins talking to you as you walk down the street, for example. You notice the strangeness of his clothes, the odd way he pronounces words, a funny look in his eyes. Without seeming to think about it deliberately, you “instantly recognize” the man as a “crazy person.” Your accumulated, culturally approved knowledge tells you not to get involved with crazy people, so you take no notice of him and walk on. Without these immediate associations that enabled you to recognize the situation as threatening or unpleasant, you might have gotten “involved” with this “crazy man,” and who knows what might have happened then?

This kind of association is so automatic that we do not usually notice it. One must look at dissociation to realize the pervasiveness and importance of association. The child’s mental state is similar to that of the deeply hypnotized subject whose consensus reality orientation has faded into relative inactivity. He does not have very much other information that comes automatically to mind, nor is the association process so automatized that it always brings a wider context to ongoing events. Therefore, the cultural hypnotists’ suggestions operate in a dissociated, nonassociated state, which increases their power.

Much of our early enculturation and conditioning occurs before we have acquired much language. I suspect that language vastly increases our ability to associate information, so this lack of language further contributes to the dissociated quality of the child’s mind. When we try, as adults — as predominantly verbal thinkers — to understand our enculturation and conditioning, we find it difficult to recall, because it is not stored in verbal form. This further increases the power of early enculturation.


A subject in a deep hypnotic state has developed considerable trust in the hypnotist. Indeed, this trust has a magical quality to it, for some amazing things have happened just because the hypnotist said they would. Children have a similar deep trust in their parents. As we noted earlier, parents often seem omniscient and omnipotent to the child, so this deep trust has magical qualities, and further opens the child to more suggestions.


Most importantly, consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have the compulsive quality that conditioning brings. Because they are automatized habits, they do not need the support of a specially defined situation, such as formal hypnosis usually requires; they operate in almost all circumstances. You no longer have to work at maintaining consensus trance: it is automatic.

We can imagine an individual who could see that the things taught him as important are merely the quaint notions of the particular tribe he was born into — not necessarily universal truths. But most of us cannot see that about the content of the consensus trance that was induced in us. In too many ways we are that trance.

By Charles T. Tart

I believe in the material universe as the only and ultimate reality, a universe controlled by fixed physical laws and blind chance.

I affirm that the universe has no creator, no objective purpose, and no objective meaning or destiny.

I maintain that all ideas about God or gods, supernatural beings, prophets and saviors, or other nonphysical beings or forces are superstitions and delusions. Life and consciousness are totally identical to physical processes, and arose from chance interactions of blind physical forces. Like the rest of life, my life and consciousness have no objective purpose, meaning, or destiny.

I believe that all judgments, values, and moralities, whether my own or others’, are subjective, arising solely from biological determinants, personal history, and chance. Free will is an illusion. Therefore the most rational values I can personally live by must be based on the knowledge that for me what pleases me is Good, what pains me is Bad. Those who please me or help me avoid pain are my friends; those who pain me or keep me from my pleasure are my enemies. Rationality requires that friends and enemies be used in ways that maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain.

I affirm that churches have no real use other than social support; that there are no objective sins to commit or be forgiven for; that there is no retribution for sin or reward for virtue other than that which I can arrange, directly or through others. Virtue for me is getting what I want without being caught and punished by others.

I maintain that the death of the body is the death of the mind. There is no afterlife, and all hope for such is nonsense.

Copyright © 1983 by Charles T. Tart