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Viewing the World through Pagan Eyes, IV: The trance of belief


This section follows part I,   part II  And part III.

The final piece of this exploration of how we and memes are mutually dependent focuses on trance. I ended my last piece observing we are valuable to memes only insofar as we serve them by aiding their spread. At the same time, memes provide much of the broad cultural contents of our awareness. We cannot do without them. The ecosystem of shared memes creates our common membership within a culture.

Trance is often defined as being focused or immersed in a dissociated plane where at least some normal cognitive functions, such as reason, volition, and perception are temporarily disabled. Usually trance is contrasted with ‘normal’ awareness. But if normal awareness is itself largely shaped by memes that structure our thoughts and expectations, then normal awareness is itself a kind of trance.

X. Hypnosis

Let’s consider hypnotic trances. They are usually artificially induced, the subject being relaxed, with a focused attention leading to responsiveness to suggestions and commands. Hypnosis is not a kind of sleep, but rather an intense connection to the hypnotist’s message. In a typical hypnotic trance, we accept the idea implanted in us by the hypnotist. That idea shapes our perceptions to fit its message. 

An entertaining example occurred to comic Howie Mandel on the TV show, America’s Got Talent. Mandel is a germophobe, and so, will not shake hands with others.  He was hypnotized on stage to think others were wearing gloves. He then had no problem shaking hands with his fellow judges. When Mandel was no longer hypnotized, again he would not shake hands, and admitted he was angered at what had happened.

Hypnotized people ‘see’ colors that were not there, fail to see colors that are, look at common words and cannot understand them, and see physical objects that are not there. Before the invention of anesthetics, hypnotism was often used to block pain during operations. Brain scans of many hypnotized people demonstrated their brains operated differently when hypnotized than did brains that were not. In other words, suggestions can influence how brains work in a physical sense. Or, as I suggested earlier, ideas have to some degree an independent influence on the body, depending on how receptive we are to them.

Sandra Blakeslee of the New York Times reported susceptibility to hypnosis is correlated with suggestibility: 10 to 15% of adults are easily hypnotizable and perhaps 20% are resistant with the rest of us are spread out between these two.  However, some 80 to 85% of children are very susceptible, at least till the age of 12. These findings suggest a kind of cultural hypnotism takes place during children’s “socialization.”

XI: Not just hypnotism

Now consider this example. Normal subjects were asked to count the times a basketball changed hands among a group of students wearing white.  While doing so, very few participants saw the person wearing a gorilla suit enter from the right, walk across the floor, pause in the middle, turn to face the audience and beat its chest, before exiting to the left! 

I suggest both Mandel and these students were in a trance.

Strong focus is an attention narrowing and attention enhancing action, temporarily weakening normal cognitive functions. In such cases, we can be very selective about what we consciously perceive.    The gorilla on the basketball court experiment demonstrates normal consensus reality is itself a kind of trance. 

 I suggest we live much of life along a continuum of light to deep ‘trance states,’ and the deeper the trance the more our perceptions are dominated by the message shaping it.  Our routine daily awareness is a kind of light trance, shaped by the mimetic environment in which we live, so long as we take those memes for granted. And we must normally take some memes for granted. But much depends on how strongly committed we are to those memes.

XII: Unintended magick

My argument requires us to abandon the Christian and secular materialist idea we are bounded atoms of awareness existing in a world of other such atoms, as well as of non-conscious objects. Instead, we live within an ideational ecosystem that makes who we are possible. The cultural memes around us provide much of the framework we need to build a sense of who we are and what possibilities are open to us. Like gravity, memes limit us, but at the same time make beings like us possible.

Pagan and occult insights about thought forms add life to memes.  We live in an inspirited world where thoughts and ideas carry energy over and above our personal intentions.  Just as we can take better or worse care of our biological bodies so we can take better or worse care of our mental ones. We need to live in a healthy balance of rest and exercise, and get appropriate balances of nutrition if we are to make the most of our physical well-being.  I suggest the same principle holds for our mental selves with respect to memes. 

When we closely identify with ideas, we perform a kind of unintentional magickal working on ourselves. We become subject to the idea rather than the idea being subject to us. We have become its tools, its hosts, vehicles for its replication. The more important a meme is to us, the more we are its tool and, to use a revealing term, fall under its spell. The more we do, the less likely we are to see what does not fit it. This can happen in a momentary task, such as watching a ball on a basketball court, or it can become an intimate part of who we think we are, such as men, women, Pagans, Americans, and so on.

The critical issue is how deeply we focus on those memes, for when we encounter an occasion where we notice memes conflict, room arises for putting them at our disposal, rather than remaining at the memes’ disposal. It takes little to break a light trance, but quite a lot to break a deep one.

XIII: The ideological trance

Light trance arising from living within a cultural ecosystem is an unavoidable part of living in the world. It provides us structure around which to create and live a life.   We are no more enslaved by memes in this context than we are enslaved because we need an earthly ecosystem to survive. Both make the beings we are possible.

Being parasitized by a dominant meme as thought form is another matter.  When we become the tool of an idea, our mental and emotional capacities will defend the idea as if we were defending ourselves. Our ‘self’ is narrowed. Evidence suggesting the meme we identify with is inadequate suggests we ourselves are inadequate. And so, we close down or lash out. Other dimensions of who we are get lost from sight when they do not fit.

When a strongly held idea is seriously challenged, or even exposed to the possibility of a serious challenge, the critical mind turns off. Some excuse is always given. The subject is changed, the point raised is ignored, or the person making the challenging point is criticized rather than the point refuted. Very often in my experience, if I give an argument to a person I believe is in such a trance, it is repeated in an unrecognizable form, well removed from vulnerability my initial criticism.  To name three of many such encounters, the person could be an advocate of cultural appropriation theory, an alt-right racist, or a strong Donald Trump supporter. Their trance enhanced behavior is a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion, triggered whenever the dominant meme is challenged. To refer to my experiences with the  examples above, rather than dealing with my argument, I am dismissed as a person blinded by his White or cultural privilege, a hater of the White race, or a libtard.

Their trance-induced evasion by the entranced, always protects the meme for which they are the host from serious challenge. When the trance is not triggered, they will be quite reasonable.

Breaking free is difficult for those who become hosts for a meme.  I have studied totalitarian political movements professionally, and what struck me is that many life-long adherents to, say, Communism, broke free, even at the cost of their lives, not due to intellectual arguments like the one I am making here. They broke free when their hearts rebelled at what their minds were supposed to believe.  If it came at all, intellectual understanding came later.  We are seeing the same pattern today as life-long loyal Republicans who managed to look the other way for years have finally broken free of blind loyalty to Trump and the party that supports him. Rebutting the ideology is not the cause of awakening, a revival of morality is.

XIV: Breaking the trance

Danger arises anytime we say we are something which is only a part of who we are.  If I say I am a Pagan, a man, straight, White, an American, a human, (and I am all of these), if they become too intimately identified with my self, I experience criticisms of them as criticisms of myself. The point is not to deny our identities, for they shape who we are, but to wear them with enough balance to respect those who do not share them.

Trance can be broken when we step aside from identifying with our thoughts, as in mindfulness meditation. It can also be broken by the heart. As our capacity to love grows, we embrace more of life as intrinsically valuable, and do not subordinate it to our selves, including that with which we have identified. To put the same point differently, we enlarge ourselves to include others, weakening the power of a narrower sense of self, and the memetic trance supports a very narrow sense of self.  That is why, I think, what often awakens people to destructive ideologies and religions are not intellectual arguments, like the one I am giving here, but revulsion at some evil committed in the name of that belief.

How do we tell whether we are in a deep and potentially destructive trance, or not?  I think a good test is to ask ourselves whether our beliefs grow or shrink our hearts.  Do they make us kinder or more brutal?  More open to others who are different or more judgmental? But I want to offer another as well.

When someone makes an argument you do not like, can you repeat it in your own words in a way that person recognizes as accurately portraying his or her point of view?  In my experience, many people in ideological trances cannot do this.  If a person points out something bad or hypocritical about ‘your side,’ do you acknowledge this is a failing worthy of criticism, or do you say both sides are guilty, and so ignore it?  Both sides may or may not be guilty, but that does not make the bad actions any less bad.  Finally, can you imagine circumstances where you might change your mind on the matter and not feel disloyal? If you cannot you have submerged who you are into the meme. This is an informal version of the scientific principle that the more a proposition is subject to tests it might fail, the more scientifically interesting it is.

What these three methods all do is distance ourselves from close identification with our belief.  As we do, we become open to evaluating its worth as well as evaluating the worth of alternative perspectives.

Why so many of these essays?

I have taken the time to develop this framework because of my experience with simple criticisms of certain views strongly held within our community.  At first, I thought maybe offering an alternative framework, for example, to ‘cultural appropriation,  arguments, might be enough. As time progressed, and insults proliferated with no real grappling with my arguments, I saw that, for some, an argument was not enough. People immersed in what I have called an ideological trance cannot see alternative frameworks to their own any more than they can comprehend criticisms well enough to evaluate them.

These essays and the more topical ones that now follow are for those of you who can.




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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Saturday, 05 May 2018

    I have a question about meme trances and brains. I have a traumatic brain injury which doesn't seem to allow me to hold memes. I end up questioning everything everyone tells me and find social media memes to be very confusing. Do memes simply need a brain to incubate them or a certain type of brain?

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 05 May 2018

    I am no expert on that issue- far from it. A meme is a custom or idea in its public aspect. Its meaning is upheld by its public use. It is not a private thought. So our customs, symbols, and basic beliefs we share in common are all memes. They are not really all that mysterious, but what is special about them given how we traditionally think is that they are sustained outside of individual minds.

    Where they get particularly interesting from many Pagan perspectives is they are essentially thought forms in occult traditions ( see the essay before this).

    So memes need societies to incubate them, societies complex enough to have beings who can have and manipulate ideas. Us, not ants. If this is correct you cannot help but make use of memes in your thinking when you engage in any very complex interaction with others.

    I hope that helps. Let me know if it doesn't.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 05 May 2018

    Another thought-while I suspect you do "hold memes" (though I am guessing since you did not explain what that term means) the question is "how hard do you hold them?" The memetic trance is akin to hypnotism, and people vary substantially in their openness to being hypnotized. Questioning things more than most may indicate you are also harder to hypnotize than most. How that relates to a brain injury is beyond my ability to even guess.

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Saturday, 05 May 2018

    I guess what I was referring to is what people refer to as common sense or commonly held assumptions. From the example you gave: Trump - the meme that comes to mind for the President's supporters is uneducated cave person, among others. I just don't subscribe to that idea of his supporters.

    Trances is something that in brain rehab, they teach people to avoid. Once in a trance, it is difficult to get out of it. It usually means that the brain is in a fugue state, which is not a good thing.

    I guess since the wiring of the brain is damaged or rewired as it is common for TBI people smell colors, hear time, etc, that ordinary memes require a certain brain wiring. Living outside of common society and navigating what people take for granted may be an obstacle for a meme to gain a foothold in a brain.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 05 May 2018

    Notice I never wrote "uneducated cave person." I certainly do not consider that implied in the term "Trump supporter." I was making a VERY different point.

    When a Trump supporter refuses to address a critic's arguments, and instead distorts them, or claims that Obama or Hillary did it as well, or attacks the critic as a "libtard," they are not dealing with the criticism, they are avoiding it. They may be wealthy, educated, and like the sun - it does not matter for my point.

    The issue isn't Trump supporters - I pointed out I have encountered the same kind of reaction from people who consider themselves progressives. The issue is so identifying with a meme/thought form that they experience a criticism of it as a criticism of themselves as people. Then they lash out or seek to change the subject, distort the argument to where it is easily 'rebutted,' or simply attack the person making the argument.

    Such people are either stupid, dishonest, or in a trance. I think most are in the third possibility.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 05 May 2018

    Two other brief points. You use 'trance' negatively. I do not. So you are not addressing my argument here. Look at my two examples of Howie Mandel and the gorilla.

    I also think you are using 'meme' differently than I, which is at least partly why I am having trouble grasping your point.

  • M.T. Noah
    M.T. Noah Saturday, 12 May 2018

    I deeply appreciate your work here. I'm planning some deep reading of your series. And to share this series, if permitted. I hope to make some useful or at least interesting to you (?) comments later.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 08 June 2018

    Feel free to share!

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