From Trance to Truth
Some time ago I attended an informal talk by a well-known hypnotherapist who described the way he worked, listed some of his successes and failures and added a few case histories. It was all very interesting and provoked lots of questions from the audience. "What does it feel like", one man wanted to know, "to put people into a trance?" The speaker smiled and shook his head. "Half the time I need to wake them from it", he replied.
Of course he was right. If we consider our mundane everyday existence, the most likely first impression will be its repetitiveness, the ceaseless flow of chores, tasks and assorted activities adding up to a complex routine which we carry out without really noticing, in a kind of light trance. It's like flying on automatic pilot: well and good as long as no complications arise, not so hot otherwise. But even if all goes well and we get smoothly through the day, doing so in a purely mechanical, almost absent way has a dangerous side effect, namely the loss of consciously experiencing any given moment. That, in turn, has a worse drawback. If it goes on long enough, the days, weeks and months merge into an undifferentiated sequence, a kind of invisible conveyor belt that seems to roll on for ever, until one day we get into a panic and wonder where life has gone. If we're lucky, we get to see a hypnotherapist who gets us out of our light trance.
If not? Well, there is a whole range of wake-up calls life tends to send us. Most of them are unpleasant, some even painful. Unexpected redundancy, the break-up of an important relationship, a serious illness, a financial loss that makes nonsense of all our careful planning – there's plenty to shatter the hazy monotony of our less than awake way of being and confront us with an unexpected view of the world. As a psychotherapist I am familiar with this kind of shock. Many clients turn up for help precisely at such a moment, having lost their former – half asleep – certainties and not knowing where to go next. They need to be woken up gently and eased out gradually from their light trance, since, as TS Eliot observed, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." Certainly not in large doses.
A Totally Still Mind
In order to live consciously we needn't wait for a rude awakening. It's far better to prevent it by learning to be present, focused, alert, fully there before being forced to do so; to see things as they are, not through a haze of projections and assumptions. To achieve that needs very simple tools. Years ago my meditation teacher astonished me by saying that even scrubbing the kitchen floor can be a meditation, if it's done with one's whole being and undivided attention. Surely not, I thought, having the solemn beginner's lofty ideas about the subject, but then decided to try it anyway. My kitchen was big, with a large floor area covered in blue and white tiles, the white ones discreetly shading into light grey. So I got down to work. Bucket, soapy water, several floor cloths, brush. Plus total concentration, with the one-pointed mind prescribed in yoga. And after the first few minutes it suddenly happened. I became totally absorbed, almost digested by the act of scrubbing the floor, noticing the minute rainbows playing on the soap bubbles, the sound of the brush working on a stain, the smell of the wet floor cloth, and experiencing this profound involvement with a totally still mind emptied of thoughts – a state I had never been able to reach via 'normal' meditation techniques.
It was a great experience, which made me appreciate the wisdom of the well-known Zen saying: "Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment chop wood, carry water." Above all remain grounded, be present. And that's not easy in the soundbite world we live in, where everything conspires to scatter our attention, distract our thoughts and leave no time for reflection. But it can be done.
Sometimes on a clear night it's enough to pop out of doors and look at the starry sky to get a deep sense of silence and infinity that acts as an anchor and puts everything around us into perspective. Sometimes it's enough to contemplate a flower and try to identify with it for a moment: what is it like to be a perfect rose or an equally perfect dandelion? Small steps, yes, but they lead towards being able to live consciously, very far away from sleepwalking in a light trance.
Yet there's more to conscious living than seeing the world in its full reality, although that is an achievement in itself, for, as a wise person once said, "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are". The next bonus is to see others as they are, not as we wish – or fear – them to be, and relate to them accordingly. Now that is a great adventure. It can enhance or kill off relationships and bring relief or regret, but in either case what remains will be more genuine and true. Then, finally, we may begin to see ourselves as we are, not through a light trance darkly, but face to face, in the full light of awareness, moving towards authentic living.
But that, as Rudyard Kipling used to say, is another story.
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