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This is the first post in a multiple part series. 

  1. The trance of ordinary life.
  2. Working with the manure of everyday life.
  3. Waking up from the food trance.
  4. Waking up from the always-on trance

The Trance of Ordinary Life

In The Observing Self, Arthur Deikman suggests that we are going through life as if in an hypnotic trance. Caught up in this “trance of ordinary life,” we engage in fantasies, recreating the relationships of our childhood (or trying to escape them), never quite seeing each other for who we are but as distorted images. We pursue goals like money, sex or power but we don’t really know why. Not knowing why, we are never satisfied, allowing the trance to go on. In this trance state our awareness is divided between fantasy and the real world. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), it appears that being half-awake is enough.

Because half-awake is sufficient for the tasks we customarily do, few of us are aware of the dysfunction of our condition. Moments of more complete awakening do occur, but the consensus of the group, and the automatic functioning of the object self make such phenomena transient curiosities rather than urgent signals that something is wrong with the normal state. (p. 129)

Deikman suggests that the aim of mysticism is to wake up from this trance, to let go of motivations that are born of fantasy, and to expand beyond the biases and limitations of our culture. Meditation and renunciation, according to Deikman (1966), are the tools that lead us there through a process of de-automatization.

Deikman (1966) suggests that the trance of ordinary life is brought about by automatization of our ways of thinking and perceiving, similar to the automatization of motor behavior (see Hartmann, 1958). This seems to be an evolutionarily solid assumption, as automatic action is less energy consuming and faster than intentional action. Based on several decades of research, Kahneman (2011), describes the mind as composed of two systems. System 1 is mostly associative in nature and designed to offer a quick impression of the environment, allowing for immediate reaction. System 2, on the other hand, is slower and more energy consuming. While system 2 is capable of analytical thinking and is used to verify system 1’s quick decisions, it often tends to accept those without much thought. Kahneman’s description appears to support Deikman’s theory of an increasingly automated (trance-like) way of being. Kahneman’s theory also supports Deikman’s suggestion that de-automatization leads to freedom through awareness of system 1’s automated nature and increased reliance on system 2.

De-automatization is “the undoing of automatic processes that control perception and cognition” (Deikman, 1984 p. 137). It may result in undoing of the perceptual selection and cognitive patterning that were created as we grew up. This may lead to ways of seeing that appear to be childlike but,

Rather than speaking of a return to childhood, it is more accurate to say that the undoing of automatic perceptual and cognitive structures permits a gain in sensory intensity and richness at the expense of abstract categorization and differentiation. One might call the direction regressive in a developmental sense, but the actual experience is probably not within the psychological scope of any child. It is a de-automatization occurring in an adult mind, and the experience gains its richness from adult memories and functions now subject to a different mode of consciousness. (Deikman, 1964)

De-automatization works by reinvesting action, thought and perception with attention. According to Van Nuys (1971), the techniques of meditation “constitute just such a manipulation of attention as is required to produce de-automatization,” resulting in “a shift in the level of perceptual and cognitive organization.” Deikman (1964) further deconstructs the mystical experience from the perspective of de-automatization, demonstrating that the effects of meditation and renunciation can be explained in this way. Deikman concludes that:

Under special goal conditions such as exist in religious mystics, the pragmatic systems of automatic selection are set aside or break down, in favor of alternate modes of consciousness whose stimulus processing may be less efficient from a biological point of view but whose very inefficiency may permit the experience of aspects of the real world formerly excluded or ignored. The extent to which such a shift takes place is a function of the motivation of the individual, his particular neurophysiological state, and the environmental conditions encouraging or discouraging such a change.

While many of us may be motivated to make a change, it is often quite difficult for one living in the world today to engage in spiritual practice. Practicing renunciation is especially hard while living in the midst of a consumerist society. Not many today will give up relationships, careers, homes in favor of remote spiritual goals. What are they to do?


Deikman, A.J. (1966). De-automatization and the mystic. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 29.4

Deikman, A.J. (1982). The observing self: Mysticism and psychotherapy. Boston : Beacon press.

Deikman, A.J. (2000). A functional approach to mysticism. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 11–12, 2000, pp. 75–91

Hartmann, H. (1958). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation. New York: International Universities Press.

Van Nuys, D. (1971). A novel technique for studying attention during meditation. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 1971, Vol.3 #2 | pg. 126

In this post I will present a model of change based on the conscious competence model and Stan Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs). This simple model will describe each stage people go through as we try to change existing habits using practices based on mindful awareness. In my own work of personal development I have found this model to be a helpful container for the process of change. It was especially helpful to remember this model in the difficult stages, when progress is difficult to detect and as a result things appear to be hopeless.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep the theory short. if you’d like, you can learn more about the conscious competence model, see here. You can think of the BPMs as an archetypal description of the process of birth which (because of it’s archetypal  nature) we can apply to other things in life. If you want to read more about the BPMs, see this link.

Conscious Competence Learning Model

The conscious competence learning model, also known as the four stages of learning, describes the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. The origins of this model are not clear; it has been used by Gordon Training International since the 1970s and is also reference in a technical paper from 1974 authored by W. Lewis Robinson. It is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, but no reference to the model exists in Maslow’s work.

The conscious competence model describes four stages in the process of learning a new skill. The process is often described as a matrix or as a ladder. It is a simple and essential model of learning, designed to support trainers imparting new skills. The four stages are as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – at this stage one is not even aware that one is lacking a particular skill or competence.
  2. Conscious incompetence – one is now aware of the need to learn how to do something but is still incompetent at doing it.
  3. Conscious competence – at this point one is able to achieve this particular task as long as they are very conscious about every step.
  4. Unconscious competence – at this final stage, one has finally mastered the skill and can complete it without even thinking about it.

Progression through the stages is sequential, moving from 1 to 2 and so on. It is not possible to skip stages, but it is possible to regress if one does not practice the new skill. The progress from stage to stage is often experienced as an “awakening” or feeling that “things click into place.”

The Conscious Competence Model and the Process of Change

We can generalize the conscious competence model and apply it to more than acquiring new skills. I am personally interested in the process of creating change in individuals both for my own process of growth and for my work as an Integral Coach. I have observed my own process of change and discovered that it can be described using a model very similar to the conscious competence model. I will also use Grof’s BPMs as a way to describe each stage from an experiential perspective. The BPM lens will help  highlight important aspects of each stage of the model including forces that both support and hinder progress.

  1. Unconscious habit (BPM 1, primal union with the mother) – This is the stage of blissful ignorance. In this stage we are not yet conscious of the habit. Like the fetus in the womb, we are free from worries.
    Counter forces: ignorance – unconscious habits tend to remain so until the light of awareness is directed there. As mentioned above, this intervention can come from an external source or from internal self-awareness.
  2. Conscious habit (BPM 2, the state of no exit) – At some point we become aware of this habit and the suffering that comes with it; perhaps this has been pointed out to us or we’ve noticed it through self-reflection. At this early stage we usually only notice the habit in retrospect or when it is already too late to change our actions. Like the fetus in that initial stage of birth, we feel the suffering inherent in our situation but are unable to change it. We may speak with a teacher or therapist and take on a practice. However, at this point it seems that all our efforts to create change either fail or quickly regress. In fact, our growing awareness of the situation may serve to increase the suffering as, through practice, we are now becoming increasingly aware. We may feel helpless, frustrated, or stuck. This is the most difficult and challenging stage of the change process when we are most likely to drop our practice and give up.
    Practice: mindful awareness and compassion – at this stage it is most helpful to become more familiar with the habit. By making it more conscious we are taking away some of its power. If we bring a critical awareness to this habit we create an antagonistic relationship with it, likely creating more suffering. However, with compassionate awareness  we begin to establish a friendly relationship with the habit leading to deeper understanding of the internal forces that support it.
    Counter forces: suffering and ignorance – the pain and suffering we begin to uncover at this point may push us into avoidance, thereby falling back into unconsciousness (ignorance).
  3. Conscious freedom (BPM 3, the death-rebirth struggle) – If we continue with our practice, we notice that given time, awareness, and applied effort things begin to change. We are sometimes able to notice the habit in real time and stop from engaging with it. There is a clear sense of hope here, but the struggle is far from over. Due to our practice, we’re now more aware than ever of the suffering brought about by our habit and we may also be gaining glimpses into the deep origins of this habit. The pull between deep psychological conditioning and the desire for freedom can be frustrating and painful. At times we may relapse into the previous stage and feel, once again, stuck. At other times, we may gain glimpses of freedom.
    Practice: conscious change – at this stage we may get more traction with practices that actively support new patterns. Keeping up the practice of mindful awareness we can supplement it with some form of compassionate intervention.
    Counter forces: suffering and resistance – as we begin to change our patterns we will likely encounter resistance. Bringing the same kind of compassionate awareness to the resistance is helpful.
  4. Unconscious freedom (BPM 4, the experience of death-rebirth) – If we continue with our practice we can create sustainable change. At this stage, the new pattern becomes natural and eventually unconscious. There is a subtle vulnerability at this stage as, after a while, one might become complacent and either fall back to earlier stages or miss the formation of new unhealthy habits. To guard against complacency it is important to develop an ongoing practice of mindful awareness and to maintain this attitude a part of one’s life.

This model can be applied to the process of undoing an unhealthy habit or to the process of acquiring a healthy one with just a small change in emphasis. Awareness of where we are in this model can help us to focus our efforts in the most effective way and serves as a reminder that even in our bleakest moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel.