Situations where one person tries to shift the consciousness of another person abound in ordinary daily life. Trying to get someone else to go for a walk, to play a game, or to get amorous are pretty usual. Living with a toddler means constantly distracting them from unwanted behavior based on untrained intentions. “Oh!” one exclaims enthusiastically, “Look at this!” One even learns the triggers for pets to keep them -- well, not under control exactly. More like in sync with one’s own purposes. Of course, pets reciprocate so that my cats have taught me to go dish out some cat food when they rub against my shins. They can even resort to negative reinforcement: a terrible yowl if I fail to respond. But babies and dogs don’t usually operate on more than one level of consciousness at a time, as adult humans do.
There are a few occupations where the direct management of someone else’s consciousness is the business at hand. Not just their behavior, as one might think a cop or trainer would want, but the person’s attitude, the way they look at what’s happening, which hopefully makes them participate in the goal, desire the same end as the person trying to move their consciousness -- not just rationally because it’s the right thing to do -- but really collaborating with enthusiasm and shared desire. Yeah, seduction. Or advertising. Religion. Politics.
Actors think about this all the time, whether they say so or not. Acting classes might do an exercise where two people face each other across a table and one tries to get the other to change their emotional state. Some of it will be body language: always eye contact. Another effective method is evoking memories, maybe rather universal ones like the struggle to learn to ride a bike. Sense-based images. Stories, if properly chosen and told, can change someone’s attitude for life.
I’m working my way through “Slings & Arrows,” the Canadian series about a company of Shakespearan actors. It’s intelligent and complex, dependent in part on knowledge of a different play each set of episodes: first Hamlet, second Macbeth, and third Lear. One soon becomes very aware of how much levels of consciousness are the subject. Shakespeare himself was preoccupied with what is real: ghosts, murderous ambition with resulting hallucinations, and frank madness. The same conceit that a dead impresario -- older, wiser, and oddly happier in death -- is used in this series as was present in “Being Julia,” the movie featuring Annette Bening who ends the show with a tour de force scene on the stage that is packed with layers of emotional reality, irony, professional skill, phony pretensions, audience reaction, turning the tables, and stage gimmicks for maintaining the power of focus. Under these amusing situations in both contexts are many questions of consciousness, like falling in love, misunderstanding others, and the exhausting corrosion of constant attention to inner life.
The idea of a dead person speaking to one is not hard to understand. We all know what influential people would say if they were still present. (Even God, though we have a notable tendency to conjure different aspects.) To debate with someone in one’s head is not unusual. A writer is often doing exactly that on paper. This inner management of one’s own consciousness can approach something like prayer or might simply be a demonstration of the ability of humans to create inner persons while not losing their own identity. Sometimes this is conscious and other times it is not.
The work of a therapist is to allow those inner dialogues, which are sometimes half-submerged in the swampy dreamland that underlies what we think we’re doing, to come out onto the “stage” where they can be engaged and explored. How much is old scripts? How much is based on fantasy or situations long gone? So much of adult identity comes from forms invented in childhood and never altogether put away. The novelist covers much of the same ground but does it alone. Then the readers pick up the narrative, run it through their own individual consciousnesses and produce a new thing, a kind of collaboration that invites their own ghosts.
A few days ago I watched a TED video made of Oliver Sacks talking about people who are blind but who “see things.” That is, their brain is throwing up images but they are not generated by sensory contact with the real world in real time. In the course of explaining this, he mentioned that there is one part of the brain where cartoons register. I’ve had no luck following this up. I don’t know whether he meant the mind-rotting capacities of “Spongebob Squarepants,” or the fMRI research that suggests women get more out of amusement at cartoons than men do, or the idea that there is a strange reality in a drawn world that might be related to our ability to “suspend disbelief” when we watch acting. Certainly my own self-observation is that cartoons, especially the kind we call “comic strips,” can create a world with its own convincing integrity. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of watching a CGI combination of familiar drawn characters with real actors. A kind of irresolvable absurdity.
Some of us have that sensation when we confront religious concepts and stories that once worked when they were drawn from the reality of the person using them to affect the consciousness of the listeners -- either persuading or confirming their ideas. (Lambs and kings.) Theology doesn’t address this situation because it is focused on logic (-ology) and only considers the theos in those terms. But an active preacher or evangelist is trying to use a personification in a way that will make it a role model -- an inner voice that can accompany the believer for the rest of their life as a source of courage and a moral guide. This is entirely honorable. But it is not a reality connected to the sensory world that obeys the laws of physics.
Leadership is the ability to embody a consciousness that makes people want to willingly follow, to share that view of the world. I would suggest we are currently stuck in unreality: too aware of people suffering on the one hand and too afraid of our own possible destructive fate on the other hand. We mistake the representations in our media for real life. We simply are not available to rational discussion of alternatives. The persons wanting to be our leaders have not gotten enough of a grip on our shared consciousness of risk to move it out of defensiveness. They don’t quite know where we are and neither do we. Where’s Shakespeare? Where’s the inner voice of the sadder but wiser dead impresario we refer to as God?