What Good are Transformative Consciousness Programs?

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Since I wrote this piece, millions around the world have succumbed to unemployment. Doesn’t it make more sense to create your own kind of work–the kind that welcomes in imagination, desire, and heart–than try to slot yourself into a job that will vanish anyway?

As more and more high-tech American industries began trying to take over higher education, the weaponization of uranium having proved radioactively successful at UC Berkeley, a self-serving canard began to circulate that only educational programs translating directly into lucrative jobs were worthwhile. The fallout from this mintage remains with us even now. Spin the coin and its other side comes into view: that programs emphasizing the enrichment of consciousness have nothing to do with eventually making money, let alone making it right now for schools forward-looking enough to host such programs.

As a result, millions of students receive a counterfeit education conducted by TAs in enormous crowded classrooms, only to graduate into mainstream jobs that bring stress, frustration, self-doubt, and alienation. Meanwhile, students with the integrity to hold out for a more fulfilling education–one that can awaken mind and heart together–receive the message that they aren’t being “practical.” But what is practical about living in misery? Or selling one’s talents to a planet-eating company?

A basic premise of programs that deepen and transform consciousness–depth psychology, holistic education, and the like–is that it’s impossible to know what to do in this world unless you find out first who you are. Because if you don’t know who you are–and most people don’t, having accepted what socialization and industry tell them they should be–then you’re likely to cause more trouble than good, even with the best of intentions. Perhaps you’ll find yourself selling substandard housing “because our competitors do it.” Or perhaps you’ll help engineer an internment camp “to protect the nation,” or even design interrogation techniques to be used therein. These quiet betrayals happen every day. Insurance companies that deny claims to dying customers, military firms that build advanced attack weaponry for “defense,” banks that sell ruinous home loans, advertising agencies that promote anorexia and childhood obesity, the Monsantos of the world that genetically engineer crops putting local farmers out of business are all staffed by ordinary, unreflective people just trying to be practical and make a living.

Or maybe instead you’ll remain silent while ruthless men take over a democracy in the name of democracy. What can one person do? The answer is: Nothing without conscious education, starting with a critical awakening to the disaster of remaining stuck in a childlike psychology of helplessness.

At bottom, demonocracy and freedumb, intolerance and flagolatry, global ecological collapse, ceaseless warfare, parasitic capitalism, and most of the other crises bedeviling the weary world come down to misuses, tightenings, and foreclosures of human consciousness. Little wonder that attempts at fixes, strategies, and surface-level solutions go awry to the degree they leave the primary dimension of consciousness out of account. Focused on swatting a fly, Curly swings a baseball bat and clobbers Moe and Larry instead. Active Denial is the name of new military hardware designed to control rioters by projecting energy at them. It is also the state of mind that, having mocked the historical knowledge offered by the humanities, refuses to look deeply into why people riot to begin with, or at how excessive control has always further inflamed angered groups of dissidents. “Instead of acting out an inner conflict, why not analyze what you really project at them?”–right there a consciousness consultant could have saved the government billions.

By inquiring deeply into the shadows and movements of consciousness, transformative programs move behind appearances both personal and collective–and lately, environmental as well–to consider

The agreement or disagreement between words and actions,
The crucial differences between implicit and explicit values,
The consequences of whole-person versus fragmentary approaches to problems,
The need for multidisciplinary and polycentric perspectives,
The long-term results of critically informed versus uninformed public and private decisoins,
The role of critical, rational, and emotionally attuned thinking in public policy,
The ethical implications of scientific discovery and technological application,
The catastrophic effects of unanalyzed authoritarianism and unconscious aggression,
The underpinnings of anthropocentricity, with its hubristic assumption of human mastery over nature,
The psychological ramifications of splitting, projection, impulsivity, and other pathological states,
The relationship between inner self-restriction and outer chaos and destruction,
The healthier alternatives to automaton conformity, inner deadness, social passivity, and uncritical obedience, and
The enormous impact of self-understanding upon the encrusted layers, levels, and power relations of entire cultures.

Transformative work not only empowers people to find their voice and speak up with it on their own behalf, it tends the inner and outer voices that go unheard. Depth psychology, for instance, has developed a century’s worth of tools for analyzing the collective fantasies below our conscious activities, desires, and ways of being. To an eye sensitized to these fantasies, global warming represents an overheating of the collective psyche as internal combustion powers ecocide and automobile alike. Examined critically and historically, the “progressive” desire to reinvent the human frame mechanically and genetically bears a strong resemblance to schemas of salvation seeking to leave behind earthly existence in favor of a heaven beyond the horizon of mortal life. Behind the fantasy of objectivity one often finds a religious psychology of ascendence and departure.

Why do such analyses matter? As Janet, Freud, James, and Jung amply demonstrated, what we remain unaware of in ourselves takes on determinative force. We act it out unconsciously, and therefore compulsively, uncritically, and often destructively. Freud spoke of “the compulsion to repeat” and “the return of the repressed.” By these terms he described powerful dynamics of psychic life that keep entire civilizations stuck in immature and aggressive patterns. The patterns can be outgrown, but one must be educated to recognize them first.

Now, back when I did therapy I often noticed how isolated people felt because they could make no sense of their sufferings. Some bewildered client would come in presenting with nightmares, tiredness, hypervigilance, irritability, shame, emotional numbness, and avoidance of certain trigger situations, and I would say something like, “Oh, you’re not crazy at all. People who have been through severe trauma often have the same or similar reactions.” More often than not they felt intense relief. Their symptoms now made sense, were expectable reactions to a distressful situation, and were shared by other sufferers. They were also indicators of a story not finished. Attention could then turn to how to finish it (“What part am I still stuck on?”) and move forward. Adoptees sometimes feel similarly when we grow up with interests and aptitudes our adoptive families find strange, only to learn one day that we inherited them.

Discovering oneself inside an archetypal situation or constellation of events can bring a similar sense of clarity and relief. In cultures that possess a working mythology–a collective framework of story and meaning with which to make sense of the world–people can tell themselves, “This seems like the work of that trickster Coyote” when their transportation gives out, especially when they learn later that a worse situation had been avoided thereby. The ancient Greeks knew of Aphroditic moments of beauty and Dionysian ecstacies and Heran qualities of protection and power. Pre-industrial cultures the world over recognized the value of Initiation: that series of Departure-Crisis-Return events that turns the sufferer into a seeker and the youth into an adult. Little wonder we who disregard such rites of passage have so many old people but few real Elders.

And so? Recognizing oneself in a typical situation expands its significance beyond the personal. What seems like a random blunder, a meaningless illness, or a chance encounter takes on the dimensions of a drama gripping the self from within and without simultaneously. The event dismissed as insignificant becomes What Happened to the Ancestors, or What My Kindred Go Through, or or Next Act of the Unfolding Mystery, or even What Earth Suffers Too, as when people become allergic to the same synthetic products that harm the ecosphere. Suddenly an apocalyptic nightmare isn’t just your little personal problem anymore, not when its imagery unmistakably reflects a collective descent into the depths. The same with “in the air” discoveries, intuitions, and images heralding something rising from deep currents we share in common. Like it or not, asleep or awake, we do dream together. We’re involved, all the way down.

Of course, those who find meaning in such event configurations are often accused of being soft-headed or afraid of the apparent indifference of existence. Nevertheless, long traditions of meaning-making ever characterize the operations of human consciousness. Actually, the deeper fear seems to be dethronement from the illusion of ironclad individuality: to the extent the world is random and dead, one can feel master of one’s own unique fate. Such individualists often deeply fear the messy realization that everyone is already inside everyone else moving through terrain possessed of an uncanny animation. Reductionism functions well as a limited scientific tool, but when relied on as a defense against the world’s unfathomable aliveness it disenchants nature, dislocates its spirits, and disconnects the wielder from the sense of belonging to inescapable circles of social, psychological, and ecological intimacy. A transformative education sees that avoidance of connection, omnipotent self-reliance, addiction to control, and reductive cynicism all stem from a fearful refusal to participate deeply in life by letting things reshape the stiffened heart: heart not so much as pump in the chest as image for the educatable capacity to be in tune. Heart, the imaginal chamber or ear in the chest where introversion and extraversion alternate in a heartbeat.

For an educated heart, data do not an explanation make. To convince, an explanation requires not only data but narrative, perspective, and meaning. When we ask Why? we don’t ask just for facts or statistics or science even though we surely want those too: we also need the inside story. The best of facts, from historical events to physical laws to firing neurons and yesterday’s trauma, can show us the how, but only from the realm of consciousness–the motive, the self-deception, the passion, the on-the-scene interpretation–do we learn a sense of the why.

And that why goes below the surface of conscious explanations. Why did those scientists build an atomic bomb? To end WW II: that is the easy answer. But why did they build it? What drove them? What shadows clung to their conscious motives? Hunger for power and recognition? Sublimated hatred of the Other? Of themselves? And why name a bomber after your mother? Not only deep psychology but the humanities can tell us. In Frankenstein Mary Shelley actually showed us the demonic underside of Promethean idealism. Practicality: the wisdom to know what we should never, ever, construct, least of all upon the bloodstained altar of Regress masquerading as Progress. By its cataclysms ye shall know it.

It would be simple to recite the many tangible benefits of a consciousness-enriching education. Taking just the arena of work, people who find vocations from rigorous self-explorations rather than aptitude tests tend to be healthy, productive, joyful, committed, loyal, passionate, and creative. They live longer and enjoy what they do. They get along with each other more easily. Some of them even redesign workplaces into trans-capitalistic havens of innovation, community, and synergistic communication. Bored order-takers don’t innovate. They implode when they don’t explode. I knew a salesman who sold insurance for thirty-five years and had a fatal heart attack the week he was due to be laid off. No coincidence there. It’s staggering to imagine the illnesses, symptoms, depressions, rages, addictions, and deteriorations suffered by people forcing themselves to do for money what makes no sense to them and leaves them no peace or satisfaction. How practical is that?

Think of the implications of transformative parenting, coupling, community, consumption, and politics. Disregarding the avoidance of endless human misery and focusing bloodlessly on the financial aspects, think of the savings in doctors, surgeons, medical bills, psychotherapy, policing, mediation, court costs, lawsuits, jail time, weapons production, border patrolling, and trillion-dollar wars. Wars initiated by the paranoid, of course, as wars always are, but supported, funded, and fought by people who never learned to examine themselves in any deep way.

Think of the thousands of women who would feel so at peace with themselves that they would not pay unscrupulous surgeons to slice into reluctant flesh. Think of the millions of children who would not grow up thirsty, malnourished, or obese. Or of industries forced to produce useful, sustainable, and healthy commodities, and mass media corporations faced with a collective choice: quality news and programming or no more business. And dump the demagogues. We’re not interested.

Smart choices, healthy changes, imaginative creations, and peaceful reconciliations happen every day on this planet, every one of them brought about by some shift in the structures of consciousness, yours and mine. It would be difficult to visualize anything more practical than an education to help us become who we were meant to be here, and to keep each other and the planet good company while we’re at it.