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