Combining poem and prose, this essay by Asa Boxer draws on ideas from films, literature, science and philosophy to examine a question of particular importance in our age of rampant censorship and disinformation: How do you know if you’re brainwashed? Pictured above: Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gets his brain cleaned in Total Recall (1990).
It ain’t so much the things that people don’t know that makes trouble in this world, as it is the things that people know that ain’t so. —Folk saying attributed to Mark Twain
It’s like our visit to the moon or to that other star, I guess you go for nothing, if you really want to go that far. —Leonard Cohen
A Guide for the Perplexed in a Secular Age
If you commit to arguments in print, or to those on television, or in the news, or in venerable tracts, or theoretical traps and cannot suffer contrarian fools; if you find yourself cramming data for the purpose of being right; If you proselytize and argue just to exercise your apish skills in gaining a branch above your brother; if you worship the image of a teacher; if your actions are a slavish routine and your mind hides from itself in the mind of another; if the others are going straight to hell; if the others are a frightful crew hell bent on destroying the world and you; if you stake out a field and cannot imagine anything grows beyond it; if you lock away imagination in a vault dead bolted closed with hard fast laws and staunch moral codes and harbour no doubts. . . if you recognize yourself in these lines, you are not beyond my therapy, dear reader, carry on.
By definition, indoctrination immures the imagination and subjugates the will; it unduly narrows your range of experience and thereby limits your relationship with the universe, your ability to commune and communicate with the full range of experience that would otherwise be open to you. Thus brainwashing affects one’s psychological disposition, which, in turn, directs one’s range of experiences, which, in turn, affirms one’s psychological disposition. In other words, once you’re brainwashed, it is very difficult to know you’re brainwashed.
It’s the conundrum of Schwartzeneger’s Total Recall, where the hero discovers he’s trapped in a virtual reality—Which is the dream and which the real reality and how do we know we know when we know? This same speculation about the uncertain nature of consciousness is the metaphysical flaw in the subtext of The Matrix, for who’s to say whether the hero’s guide, Morpheus (named after the god of sleep, after all!), is not just another layer in the Matrix, whether he’s not a fantasy subprogram developed to keep the feistier minds occupied while the evil machines continue to milk the sleeping bodies of humanity for electric energy? There’s also Mal’s hellish state of despair in a limbo world in the film, Inception, where she believes the only way to wake up from her dream is to die in that dream, but this mindset returns with her to her originary reality, and consequently, she commits suicide for real.
Underlying each of these stories is the anxiety that once you’ve crossed the frontier into a false reality, you can never again be certain whether you’ve ever truly returned. This existential breakdown happens because the terms of reality are forever destroyed in these fantasies by the new reality; in fact, reality as a concept becomes meaningless in such scenarios—or almost. . . because when you think about it, the soma (or body)—the human organism—is forever the bedrock reality; it’s the only object that really counts in the end; in fact, one might observe that the body is the object of the hero quests in these films.
How do these narratives apply to us? Well, we all require boundaries; we all require role models; we all depend upon sources of information we consider reliable. In other words, we require an initial brainwash to prime our consciousness. We must wade into and immerse ourselves in a paradigmatic stream if we are to be at all functional: to learn a language, to be a child our folks can be proud of, to make it through our schooling, to make friends, get a job, raise a family. So the trouble is—much like the above mentioned heroes—even if we rebel against the cult that formed us, even if we manage to scramble up the banks of the stream that claims our being—we can never be entirely sure our reality is really real because ultimately, we must give ourselves over to some kind of paradigm. If you were brought up in a religious home, for instance, and later on in life you become an atheist, you are simply switching paradigms; and the more certain your commitment to the new paradigm, the more indoctrinated you are.
The solution to this conundrum, then, lies in the recognition that this existential condition is inescapable. The only true sanity one can achieve is the understanding that there is no one true paradigm. The upshot is that there is no final authority, and to pursue one is a vain endeavour, as the book of Ecclesiastes pointed out long ago. “And I gave my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I perceived also that this is vexation of spirit and grasping for the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).
Such a conclusion, however, threatens to lock us into a nihilistic paradigm. And we are wise to resist its draw. Accordingly, the best philosophies are those that acknowledge both the fixity and the flux that hold sway over reality, those philosophies that find value equally in attending to formalised finalities on the one hand, and to the changeable nature of all things on the other.
What I’m getting at is that an open minded worldview that still permits us to dedicate ourselves to a pursuit—whatever it may be, however foolish it may appear to our neighbours—is the healthiest stance a psyche can take because it keeps the door open to an ever widening range of experience, growth and understanding. This psychological position is the only one that keeps things real.
Sounds easy enough. But the difficulty is that we must face resistance in our pursuits, and to overcome that resistance, we must dig in our heels, focus our minds and apply all of our inner resources to fulfilling our quest. This activity entails such single-mindedness, one risks losing the open mindedness required if we wish to maintain a balanced sense of reality. So the trick lies in this: if one is too open minded, there can be no real commitment, no real power in one’s actions because any worthwhile achievement requires focus, and focus necessitates narrow minded, exclusionary attention over prolonged periods of time. It takes a steeled psyche indeed to be a hard minded believer and still maintain the humility to recognise the limited field in which one operates.
Rupert Sheldrake has posited the notion of morphic resonance (or formative causation) to explain a host of phenomena, from how biological organisms take the shapes they do, to how flocks of birds instantaneously switch directions without bumping into each other, to how one can sense he’s being stared at. According to this theory, the universe has a memory. Sheldrake, by the way, is not alone in this observation; Henri Bergson elaborated on the implications of cosmic memory at the turn of the 20th century. By Sheldrake’s lights—and this is something Bergson did not write about—once a phenomenon first appears, it is more likely to appear again. Furthermore the probability of its recurrence increases the more often it occurs, giving rise to the stable, organized patterns we find in the universe.
If the universe has memory—or requires memory if it is to endure in any meaningful sense, as Bergson put it—the implication is that it has consciousness, and this consciousness expresses itself in the form of “morphic fields,” which both form and link biological organisms (as well as inert matter). This theory of morphism is compelling because, among other things, it accounts for a range of observations and experiences generally closed to science—even dismissed as delusional—things like telepathy (pets knowing when their masters are coming home) and synchronicity. It also goes some way toward providing an answer to how evolution might actually work.
The concept of morphic fields may also inform our sense of what’s going on with fashions and zeitgeists. Imagine any philosophy, scientific theory, religion, cult, mystical practice, ethnicity, identity group or political movement as a morphic field, a kind of resonant pond or plasma field (Sheldrake mentions the notion of a “vacuum field”), and flowing into and out of this pond, various streams connecting it to earlier ponds and leading away toward a network of supportive ponds, oppositional ponds, and in some cases, toward radical, new ponds. Total immersion in a given field will no doubt provide one with a depth of experience and sense of connectivity and purpose closed to those who only dip their toes in or wade in to their knees. The ecstasy of the fanatic is unavailable to the sceptic. The wry humour of the sceptic is unavailable to the fanatic. They are both brainwashed; unless, of course, they have consciously chosen their paths and understand the limitations inherent to their fields of reality.
In his novel, A Separate Reality, Carlos Castaneda introduces the notion of controlled folly to describe this approach to the world:
A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs. . .Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. . .His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.
This attitude is the inevitable conclusion of one who understands the inconsequence of his choices. Instead of being concerned with the importance of his actions and their outcomes, he focuses on casting himself into action with heart. The ethics here may strike one as shaky, but they are hardly so, for they are anchored in one’s choices (however inconsequential they may ultimately be), which is a subject we will examine in the next section of this essay. Suffice it to say at present that the imposition of one’s will is always a cause of someone’s displeasure, so our commitments are best made in accordance with our lot and our core disposition.
In short, controlled folly allows one to fully experience a given field of action, and that full range of experience is not to be underestimated. All fields are populated by their particular forces, some beneficial, others antagonistic. For instance, mystics speak of providence as a force that aids the seeker in his quest. “When the student is ready, the master will appear”—to give an example. The forces of opposition equally arise, and they can range from shallow, petty yet still psychically damaging social challenges, to profound and invisible demonic trials. A mystic or witch—one who immerses himself completely and approaches the abyss of his field—will encounter the demonic; whereas a pragmatic, technician-type who only casually wades into the field will find himself at worst confronting cut-throat colleagues and will never experience either demonic forces or providential guidance.
There have been periods in which demon possession was not uncommon; what the 19th century called delirium remains a mystery. There is no question that recategorising and redefining illnesses of consciousness has helped demystify and perhaps manage them better. But to dismiss past psychic disturbances as instances of psychosis or multiple personality disorder may very well be anachronistic, for who is to say exactly what is going on in the evolution of reality? Perhaps the field of psychological research has helped a great deal in drawing us away from the abyss and into the shallows. But equally plausible, by conducting certain forms of investigation, we have in fact altered the fabric of consciousness. What is certain is that in doing so, we have not only drawn away from our devils, but also from our angels—much as Rainer Maria Rilke feared when he refused psychotherapy, saying, “I am afraid it would exorcise my angels along with my demons.”
In Joseph Conrad’s short story, “Karain: A Memory,” Karain—the “war-chief” of a small group of people in the Southern Philippines—tells the narrator of the story, the captain of a British schooner involved in the illegal gun trade, that he is being haunted by a vengeful spirit. For protection, he escapes his own world and seeks refuge aboard the schooner: “He [the spirit] cannot come here—therefore I sought you,” he explains. “You men with white faces who despise the invisible voices. He cannot abide your unbelief and your strength.” Here Conrad observes something deeper than a merely psychological relationship with reality. The implication is that reality is in fact adjustable; in other words, your reality can be more limited or more open according to the field in which you abide. Flat out disbelief in a given phenomenon can actually limit the range of one’s experiences, whereas belief in a phenomenon can result in its manifestation. Moreover, Karain understands that simply being in the company of a collective of unbelievers will do the trick: “It is only near you, unbelievers, that my trouble fades like a mist under the eye of day.” Among this group, Karain is able to escape into another field of resonance inaccessible to vengeful spirits.
This is not to say that anything you believe in can be brought into being simply by wishing it so; such a position would imply that there is no objective reality at all, that life is but a dream. What I’m getting at is that there is a range of phenomena that can be affected by the observer, not just in the interpretive sphere, but in the sphere of sense based reality. Also, the collective field in which one operates—what Sheldrake refers to as social and behavioural fields—can influence the available range of phenomena. In other words, there are domains of the sensual universe that are available or unavailable to the influence of consciousness according to one’s state of mind and according to the collective in which one operates.
If this sounds unscientific, it is only because it is an unexamined premise of present day science that claims all things unscientific that do not filter out effects that might be due to human attention. Without our noticing, this aspect of the scientific approach in fact confirms the potential effects of attention on laboratory experimentation. Consider how the protocol insists on blind testing and blind repeatability. This protocol exists because science only wants to deal with Euclidean realities—realities that are not affected by human consciousness, realities that are true despite psychic variables. Of course, Euclidean realities only exist on paper; and the same may be observed of experimental realities. Things get more complicated outside the controlled field of the lab because a lab is a place where statistically dominant outcomes are deemed more real than statistically anomalous outcomes. The greater universe, however, does not care for these neat arrangements. As a consequence of this approach, the secular mind tends to disregard the impact of human attention as unreal. Meanwhile, the scientific method itself confirms this reality by making efforts to filter out the noise it introduces to the data set.
A whole area of investigation and experimentation awaits science in the domain of observer impact. It will be a more refined science that understands which areas of observation are affected and which remain unaffected by attitudes and attention. To put it another way, there are areas of reality that are open to the influence of will and imagination. What these areas might be would concern another essay altogether—but we can here propose that these are likely areas dealing with creative rather than destructive processes.
In his philosophical work, Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson explains why creative forces are beyond the reach of scientific cognition:
But in astronomy, physics and chemistry the proposition has a perfectly definite meaning: it signifies that certain aspects of the present, important for science, are calculable as functions of the immediate past. Nothing of the sort in the domain of life. Here calculation touches, at most, certain phenomena of organic destruction. Organic creation, on the contrary, the evolutionary phenomena which properly constitute life, we cannot in any way subject to a mathematical treatment. It will be said that this impotence is due only to our ignorance. But it may equally well express the fact that the present moment of a living body does not find its explanation in the moment immediately before, that all the past of the organism must be added to that moment, its heredity—in fact, the whole of a very long history.
Thus, the positive, creative powers available to those who immerse themselves in a field have been much more difficult to understand: psychic abilities, telepathic abilities, synchronicities, visionary experiences along with telekinetic influences are presently denied existence by present day science because these phenomena do not operate according to mechanistic, atomistic processes. If a process cannot be broken down and built back up, science is at a loss because its grasp of the world is one of reverse engineering. Creative processes involving cosmic memory systems lie outside its present reach. Unfortunately, indoctrinated scientists—the populists and technicians of the group—cannot accept what lies beyond their paradigmatic field.
How much reality we experience is partly up to us, but however much reality we experience, we never have the whole picture. To put it another way, we are never omniscient. And in an evolving universe, we are never even omniscient collectively speaking—as some scientists in populist quarters seem to suggest, not to mention certain mystic gurus. Internalising this understanding leads to the kind of humility necessary to engage with our fellows in true conversation for the sake of personal growth and for the sake of cohesive synergy at the collective level.
If you’re brainwashed, you believe—at an unexamined level—in some sort of human access to omniscience; and you will claim to know things that you do not know anything about. This is a tricky situation, for who decides what you know and what you do not know when it comes to your heart? Perhaps the best measure is to inquire what motivates your claims to knowledge.
With controlled folly in play, the problem of identifying indoctrination has little to do with the outward signs, with one’s pieties and practices; the problem is the unquestioning belief in the final and absolute authority of the field in which one has chosen to operate; it’s the belief that all other fields are dangerous paths of dissolution leading to suffering, despair and damnation for both the individual and the world; it’s a condition of mind that leads to the fanatical sense that all other fields must be subverted, dominated or destroyed.
But controlled folly leaves us with an ethical problem: how does one make an ethical choice in these matters? Aren’t there in fact some paradigms that are harmful or that could use some innovation, and that therefore must be opposed, even subverted and destroyed? If all is folly, how is one to make moral choices? How do you know when a philosophy, scientific theory, religion, cult, mystical practice, ethnicity, identity group or political movement ought to be challenged?
In an ideal world, any group that actively seeks to gain ascendancy and authority would be deemed evil and that’s that. Unfortunately, however, we live in a complex environment. We tend to think of all oppressed groups as justified in casting off the yokes of their oppressors. Those involved in toppling dominant regimes are heroes after all. But often enough, a cycle of oppression sets in whereby the newly dominant group, the heroic one, simply oppresses a new group of disenfranchised. Casting one’s eye across history, one wonders if humanity isn’t doomed to endlessly repeat this cycle; and indeed this might be the case. Therefore, the only option left to a moral individual is to operate within these circumstances with one’s eyes wide open and to treat one’s fellows —barring obvious exceptions—with whatever dignity one can afford.
To make things more confusing, history casts us at times into conditions that obfuscate the terms of oppression. The present puritanical phase of Western civilisation is a case in point. In a glut of wealth, the bourgeoisie has come to classify certain forms of social discomfort as oppression. Meanwhile, the means taken to police the so-called “privileged” to relieve the designated “victims” of their discomfort is itself oppressive, often breaking some of this civilisation’s most sacred constitutional provisions, like freedom of speech, to achieve these ends. In fact, fanaticism in this arena has led us into a social nightmare in which some opinions are deemed criminal and are punished with ostracism and disenfranchisement.
Meanwhile, the troubled terms of oppression in the socio-political sphere find echo in the sciences, where the freedom to pursue intellectual inquiry has been equally curtailed. The sciences, of course, are the last place this sort of repressive behaviour should have manifested. The story of physicist Wal Thornhill’s uphill battle exploring, investigating and introducing the Electric Universe Theory is a clear case of scientific authority run amok. When Thornhill was starting out as a university undergraduate in the sciences in the 1970s, he sought training and guidance from his professors as anyone would. But when he brought up certain fundamental questions regarding the geological record and astrophysics—mainly inspired by his interests in Immanuel Velikovsky—his ideas were met with discouraging hostility.
Strange to encounter emotion of this kind in the sciences, one would think. I mean, the sciences after all, are supposed to immunise their practitioners to precisely this sort of authoritarian pettiness. Clearly, however, some indoctrination had set in; physics had become an institutionalised cult. Even at present, the attitude is that Newton and Einstein wrote the laws of physics, and that ideas that break these laws are verboten. Talk about putting the horse behind the cart! It’s as if these fellows were the gods who designed the universe, rather than thinkers struggling to describe it. Faced with this scientific farce, this glaring fraud, Thornhill had to strike out on his own; and in 2019, the SAFIRE experiment finally demonstrated that the theory of the electric sun could no longer be dismissed out of hand and ridiculed.
Suffice it to say that identifying oppression is a slippery business, and that any institution is liable—by dint of its own need to self-perpetuate—to become oppressive, even those institutions charged with guarding us against oppression.
So when it comes to the moral question of resistance, a certain measure of pragmatism helps. Finger pointing will only engender conflict. Social atomisation like identitarianism clearly sets folk apart without any plan of bringing them together. Therefore, a moral person must possess some measure of common sense.
Presently, however, we find ourselves in the midst of brainwashed hordes. And don’t get me wrong, many among these hordes are otherwise intelligent people. Intelligence is no immunity to indoctrination. In fact, it often seems to be a liability. In a way, it has never been easier to perceive indoctrination at work; but in another, it has seldom been more difficult to resist because to fight back is to join these brainwashed hordes. “Resist not evil,” Christ recommended. Surely, in an age like ours, there could be no better advice.
In short, the absolutely most important issue when it comes to brainwashing boils down to motivation. Do you believe what you believe and act the way you act because you seek authority? If so, you are brainwashed. If you are the servant of your knowledge, if you are its tool, and your knowledge does not, as it should, serve you instead as your tool, you are brainwashed. You are participating in a deadening, robotic, zombie-like existence. You are a mere follower and puppet. But it is not always easy to perceive one’s motivations. Indeed, it takes a self-critical clarity that few possess—and those few possess it only intermittently. What’s more, the first steps in that direction are painfully difficult.
One way of looking at the problem of indoctrination is to recognise that the crux of it is a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of knowledge. Brainwashed folk seek knowledge as an instrument of authority, and so they memorise authoritative tracts and rhetorical strategies for the purpose of winning arguments. In fact, a glaring sign of indoctrination is the adoption of a peculiar technical vocabulary, a jargon full of references to an arcane or occult schema—and this is true of science as much as of any political, philosophical, spiritual or psychological practice. This is not to say that studying a schematised vocabulary is unhelpful to a seeker; quite the contrary. But coded language is a sign of a cabal or cult because it corrals together those who belong and locks out those who do not belong. If a specialised vocabulary cannot find incarnation, as it were, in layman’s terms, the schema it refers to may very well be a fraud engineered for the sake of authority. Knowledge is an evolving corpus, not a finite canon, and its purpose is not to inform for the sake of proving one’s superiority, but to encourage inner growth, to provide tools for discussion and deeper thought.
The only way to know you are not brainwashed is to wake up from the condition of mimicry whereby one imitates one’s mentor, whereby one quotes and thumps one’s bible (whatever text or manifesto or complex matrix it might be), whereby one shouts slogans and loses one’s eyes and ears and heart to the crowd one follows.
The only ethical approach to controlled folly, then, is to choose the stream into which you cast yourself with the full understanding that you might have cast yourself into any number of equally beneficial reality streams. Almost any cause can be just; and any cause can turn oppressive as soon as it turns fanatical. If anyone tells you the world is ending, for instance, you can be sure you’re dealing with a fanatic. It’s the oldest trick in the book, yet here we are in the 21st century, proud of how far we’ve come, and educational institutions across the West have fallen for it like marks at a rigged carnival game. Brainwashing has entered our civilisation at the institutional level, targeting our children, our governments and our judiciary. In the midst of such social turmoil, choosing one’s folly comes down to choosing one’s battles, and that is but a matter of lot and disposition.
At the start of this essay, I mentioned how disposition was a confusing subject because one’s disposition is a factor of one’s sense of reality. But we also determined that the body was the ultimate object of the quest for reality because the body is the final touchstone and truth. It takes time to get to know oneself, perhaps a whole lifetime. But there are indicators early on and along the way that give us a sense of both our strengths and our limitations: those are the contours of our core disposition. If you’re a warrior, then war is your destiny. If you are not, it would be wise to leave the battle axe to another: analogically, this rule extends to law, finance and spheres of power. If you are easily shamed, do not attempt a career in politics. If you are reclusive, observant, incisive, sometimes visionary, you may be a monk, an artist, an artisan or an inventor. If you are outgoing and charming and sly, you may be a performer or a politician—the choice is yours. But if you find yourself cutting across the grain of your core disposition; if you feel your calling is a pipe dream beyond your reach and that it would be wiser to pursue a safe career, you are either suffering some form of indoctrination, or you are being subjugated under an oppressive regime. Likewise if you are in a state of confusion and there seems to be no place for you, no calling at all. Under these circumstances, the body—that bedrock reality—will suffer; anxiety and depression will do their disquieting work until it is clear that you’ve been set against your core disposition and some self reflection is in order. In summary, self knowledge is central to the ethical implementation of controlled folly. To risk a cliche, the key here is to be true to yourself.
So after all that, bottom line: how do you know if you’re brainwashed? If you notice you’re working against yourself, that would be a sign; both psychological and physical suffering may be taken as indicators of such a predicament. Employing a specialised jargon to explain the world and your place in it necessarily limits the range of your vision and your ability to experience events that take place beyond the bounds of that narrow vocabulary. If yours is the only reality; if you pursue knowledge for the sake of authority, power and the dominion of your reality over the reality of your brother’s; if you dismiss the experiences of others out of hand because they do not conform to your sense of reality; in other words, if there is only one way of seeing and doing things, you are brainwashed. If you believe consensus is truth; if you believe that some group has it all figured out, then you do not understand the nature of reality or the purpose of knowledge, and you are brainwashed. Why does any of this matter? If you do not comprehend the evolving dynamism of the universe, and lack humility in your convictions, your relations with your fellows will be abusive. For those who truly wish to understand what is going on in this life, it matters because for us, it means the conversation is always open. It means there are always new things to be learned and explored. It means life is an adventure and no one ever has a full grasp of the cosmos. It means we need each other. It means the creative spirit is free.
Asa Boxer’s poetry has garnered several prizes and is included in various anthologies around the world. His books are The Mechanical Bird (Signal, 2007), Skullduggery (Signal, 2011), Friar Biard’s Primer to the New World (Frog Hollow Press, 2013), Etymologies (Anstruther Press, 2016), and Field Notes from the Undead (Interludes Press, 2018). Boxer is also a founder of and editor at The Secular Heretic.