Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Persuaders

A Talk by Vance Packard


Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project

Beyond 'Eggheads': Vance Packard Pulls Back the Curtain on Advertising, 1958

Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - 01:10 PM

Licensed for use only on NEH-funded Annotations blog.Vance Packard Testifying Before Congress, July 26, 1966 (© Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images)
At this Books and Authors Luncheon, Vance Packard tries to dispel the idea that his book, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), is merely about the quirks and absurdities of advertising's use of "motivational research." 
In fact, what he had in mind when he wrote the book was "a protest against the over-commercialization of American life." Packard feels we are in danger of losing many of our basic rights, citing three areas of specific concern. The first is "the growing boldness in invading the privacy of our minds." This concerns subliminal messages, flashes of popcorn, say, or Coca-Cola, in a movie theater, too rapid to be consciously perceived but resulting in increased concession-stand sales. Second is "the deliberate encouragement of irrational behavior." The shopping list, he claims, is a thing of the past; 70 percent of the items purchased at a supermarket are now bought on impulse. "Psychological obsolescence" now gets people to replace perfectly good appliances, cars, and even houses, because they are no longer in style. Finally, he laments a change in the American character itself. We are the most materialistic nation on earth, he says. Whereas the youth in other countries are "aglow with idealism," young Americans have succumbed to "the pressure to consume."
The great question, he concludes, that we must ask ourselves, going forward, is, "How can we work out a spiritually tolerable relationship between our dynamic economy and our free people?"  
A popularizer before the word itself was popularized, Packard (born in 1914) spent the early part of his career working for newspapers and magazines. In 1952 he began writing books, combining his reportorial skills with a deep-seated conviction that the course of American society had gone awry after the war. The Hidden Persuaders tapped into a sense of paranoia and loss of control felt by the consuming public. Reviewing its initial reception, The New York Times, in his obituary, recalled:
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, A.C. Spectorsky called the book ''frightening, entertaining, and thought-stimulating.'' The work remained on The New York Times best-seller list for a year. ''Hidden Persuaders'' became all the rage; many readers claimed they were being subjected to subliminal advertising every time they noticed a glitch in their television reception.
The advertising industry was incensed, denying the sinister motives imputed to it. Even today, Advertising Age's 100 People of the Century grudgingly lists Packard, noting:
The public bought the book and its premise. Packard explained that ad agencies used psychiatry, motivational research, and related social sciences to create subliminal selling patterns. Ironically, his work contained enough distortions to diminish its value where it might have counted most -- among ad makers.
Packard went on to write several more best-sellers all stemming from the same premise, that conformity was on the rise and materialism was doing away with the American virtues of independence and simplicity. These included The Status-Seekers (1959), about social stratification and social-climbing; The Waste Makers (1960), about manufacturing's need to convince people to buy things they don't need; and The Naked Society (1964), about the loss of individual privacy. Although none of these books contained much original research or thinking, they did bring together scientific information and personal testimony, aiming at a "middlebrow audience" whose concerns mirrored Packard's own. His findings have been variously characterized as scary, comic, only of interest to "eggheads," as well as the possible basis for a musical. As the website of his alma mater, Penn State, summarized:
Readers and critics quickly associated the…books as playing an important role in the awakening of consumer awareness among Americans. He was once described in Publishers Weekly as “our most popular popularizer of sociology.”
Indeed, it was after hearing a lecture by Packard that a young Betty Friedan determined to write a similar type of book about her own concerns, which later became The Feminine Mystique
Packard's clarion call to action, or at least to increased awareness, sounds somewhat muted today. As Mark Greif, in an essay marking The Hidden Persuaders' 50th anniversary, notes:
What’s surprising is the degree to which we’ve all become sophisticates, engaging in our own Packard-like critiques of consumer culture without changing our habits. We know we buy irrationally; we just don’t care. We imagine that the “manipulators” at J. Walter Thompson or BBDO play only on the fears and hopes of desperate consumers who aren’t as “conscious” as we are (in which case it’s hard not to admire the ingenuity of the advertisers), while we ourselves are smart enough to decide when to give in. On the last page of The Hidden Persuaders, Packard had to acknowledge the paradox: “When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.” We seem to enjoy both knowing that ads are hustling us and choosing to be hustled.
Packard continued to produce books that showed his uncanny ability to anticipate the concerns of the reading public. His last book, published in 1989, was The Ultra-Rich: How Much Is Too Much?
Packard died in 1996. He was 82.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of transcription disc.


 Vance Packard

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Human Communities

By Idries Shah

All human societies are based upon, and their continuity and growth are reinforced by, the use of hope, fear and repetition.

Although this simple structure is not visible to the overwhelming majority of people, everyone who is concerned with human groupings uses and approves the application of hope, fear and repetition.

The structure is employed in every type of organisation: whether tribal, national, political, religious, recreational, educational or other.

Two things militate against the recognition of the structure by the people in it and those operating it:-

1. The seeming diversity of objectives of the societies in question;

2. The very simplicity of the structure. It is so obvious as not to be self-evident in the way in which people think things are self-evident.

There is also an unspoken, because unrecognised, consensus in human thought upon this matter: Because everyone is accustomed to being manipulated by hope and fear, and because everyone assumes that repetition is necessary, the possible progress in analysing this situation is virtually at a halt. It is as if one might say: 'We make sounds. Why should we turn these into words? They suffice us.' — in a pre-verbal condition of man.

Such a hypothesis (about words not being necessary) would be adequate only under circumstances in which there was no real need for coherent speech. In a society, in other words, where there were no dissatisfaction and no real curiosity leading to investigation which might result in the production of a useful instrument (that is to say 'speech') and the removal of a source of tension and annoyance leading to frustration (for instance, superabundant grunting and chattering!).

When such statements as the foregoing are made clearly enough, experience shows that they tend to elicit two main automatic reactions. These reactions may be presented as attempts to avoid or resolve the challenge. In fact they are capable of doing neither.

Summarizing the first reaction:

'Man can learn only by these methods. To abolish them would be to prevent learning and reduce the chances of human cohesion.'

Summarizing the second reaction:

'This contention does not prove that there is any other way of learning or organisation, or that quality and measure in these techniques exists or needs to exist.'

Now, it is always difficult to deal with prejudices which provide people with advantages — such as not having to think. It is equally difficult to satisfy people who inwardly but not admittedly fear that they might be revealed as shallow; or who fear that the consequences of admitting something unfamiliar might 'change' them. It is difficult — it is not, however, impossible.

If it were impossible, the human race would have died out through lack of adaptive capacity. It is true, though, that those who cannot or will not adapt to constructive but unfamiliar information are members of the segment of humanity which does, in the cultural sense, die out. Those individuals, schools of thought and societies which have not adapted to 'now' (that is, unfamiliar) information and environmental changes have died out.

The two main reactions just quoted are less plausible than the contentions which they oppose. For that alone they could be dealt with merely by ignoring those who hold them, and regarding the actual fact of holding such opinions as evidence of the incapacity of the person to adapt to unfamiliar ideas: evidence of his relatively poor survival ability.

But there is a mechanical trap here, and it is worth observing in passing. People who oppose 'new' or unfamiliar concepts can be made to accept them if the 'new' conception is sufficiently energetically projected. That is to say, there would be no real difficulty in conditioning, by fear, hope and repetition, these objectors to 'believe' that fear, hope and repetition were undesirable in quantity or quality. The trap is that you would now have plenty of conditioned people who objected to conditioning because they had been conditioned to object! They would be useless to further understanding, almost by definition, certainly by the crudity of their operational capacity.

So agreement with your original statement, or 'belief' in it, is not what is aimed at. This in itself is a very unfamiliar concept, since virtually all human societies prize above everything agreement and belief. What do you seek, they will (and do) ask in bewilderment, if you do not seek converts, heroes, martyrs, believers, dedicated supporters, disciples, propagandists, enthusiasts, representatives, common denominators, and so on. 

What you seek, because it is an essential prerequisite to understanding, is people who can accept the possibilities which follow:-

1. That virtually all human communities are established and maintained by the reward/punishment and repetition mechanisms;

2. That there might be an alternative;

3. That this alternative might not require the abandonment of membership of one or several of the 'basic' types of grouping; the basic type is a grouping produced by hope and fear and maintained by repetition;

4. That it might even be necessary for man to remain, for some of his purposes, formally grounded in one or more 'basic' grouping;

5. That it might be possible to add the unfamiliar form of relationship to one's range of experience, without disturbing the 'basic' type already implanted;

6. That there may be a value in some form of understanding which could be prevented by conversion;

7. That it might be useful to observe and recognise the occurrence and operation of the 'basic' structure in all forms of human association which surround everyone; 

8. That it might be advantageous to absorb this 'new' information rather than to react to it as if it were a key, panacea or magic wand;

9. That it is being suggested that it could be the exclusion (not the cultivation) of emotional or intellectual bonds based on hope and fear and operated by repetition, which could open a door to knowledge of a kind different from that which is available through the single system just described.

From The Commanding Self, page 63
© 1994, The Estate of Idries Shah  

from The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Political Correctness

By Doris Lessing (1992)

While we have seen the apparent death of Communism, ways of thinking that were either born under Communism or strengthened by Communism still govern our lives. Not all of them are as immediately evident as a legacy of Communism as political correctness.

The first point: language. It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps”, “contradictions”, “the interpenetration of opposites”, and the rest.

The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation...” 

Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.

Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.

A young friend of mine from North Yemen saved up every bit of money he could to travel to Britain to study that branch of sociology that teaches how to spread Western expertise to benighted natives. I asked to see his study material and he showed me a thick tome, written so badly and in such ugly, empty jargon it was hard to follow. There were several hundred pages, and the ideas in it could easily have been put in 10 pages.

Yes, I know the obfuscations of academia did not begin with Communism --as Swift, for one, tells us-- but the pedantries and verbosity of Communism had their roots in German academia. And now that has become a kind of mildew blighting the whole world.

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language.

The second point is linked with the first. Powerful ideas affecting our behavior can be visible only in brief sentences, even a phrase – a catch phrase. All writers are asked this question by interviewers: “Do you think a writer should...?” “Ought writers to...?” The question always has to do with a political stance, and note that the assumption behind the words is that all writers should do the same thing, whatever it is. The phrases “Should a writer...?” “Ought writers to...?” have a long history that seems unknown to the people who so casually use them. Another is “commitment”, so much in vogue not long ago. Is so and so a committed writer?

A successor to “commitment” is “raising consciousness.” This is double-edged. The people whose consciousness is being raised may be given information they most desperately lack and need, may be given moral support they need. But the process nearly always means that the pupil gets only the propaganda the instructor approves of. “Raising consciousness,” like “commitment,” like “political correctness,” is a continuation of that old bully, the party line.

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, The Fifth Child, which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on. 

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course The Fifth Child is about AIDS.”

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. 

That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

The demand that stories must be about something is from Communist thinking and, further back, from religious thinking, with its desire for self-improvement books as simple-minded as the messages on samplers.

The phrase political correctness was born as Communism was collapsing. I do not think this was chance. I am not suggesting that the torch of Communism has been handed on to the political correctors. I am suggesting that habits of mind have been absorbed, often without knowing it.

There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what to do: I am putting it in this nursery way rather than in more intellectual language because I see it as nursery behavior. Art -- the arts generally -- are always unpredictable, maverick, and tend to be, at their best, uncomfortable. Literature, in particular, has always inspired the House committees, the Zhdanovs, the fits of moralizing, but, at worst, persecution. It troubles me that political correctness does not seem to know what its exemplars and predecessors are; it troubles me more that it may know and does not care.

Does political correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.

A professor friend describes how when students kept walking out of classes on genetics and boycotting visiting lecturers whose points of view did not coincide with their ideology, he invited them to his study for discussion and for viewing a video of the actual facts. Half a dozen youngsters in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts filed in, sat down, kept silent while he reasoned with them, kept their eyes down while he ran the video and then, as one person, marched out. A demonstration -- they might very well have been shocked to hear -- which was a mirror of Communist behavior, an acting out, a visual representation of the closed minds of young Communist activists.

Again and again in Britain we see in town councils or in school counselors or headmistresses or headmasters or teachers being hounded by groups and cabals of witch hunters, using the most dirty and often cruel tactics. They claim their victims are racist or in some way reactionary. Again and again an appeal to higher authorities has proved the campaign was unfair.

I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma.  

-- from the New York Times Op Ed page, June 22, 1992

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Transpersonal Psychologies (VI)

excerpts from "Higher States of Consciousness" in States of Consciousness, by Charles Tart (1975):

Three systems for value-ordering d-SoCs [discreet states of consciousness] are described below to illustrate that explicit and detail orderings are possible. Two are from the Buddhist tradition and one from the Arica traditions. While none of these is scientific, each is capable of being cast as a scientific theory and tested. 

    Figure 17-3 presents an ordering of nine d-SoCs that are all higher than ordinary consciousness. These are d-SoCs[2] to be obtained sequentially in seeking enlightenment through a path of concentrative meditation in Buddhism. 

     The underlying value dimension here might be called freedom. The Buddha taught that the ordinary state is one of suffering and entrapment in the forms and delusions of our own minds. The root cause of this suffering is attachment, the (automatized) desire to prolong pleasure and avoid pain. The journey along the Path of Concentration starts when the meditater tries to focus attention on some particular object of concentration. As he progresses, his concentration becomes more subtle and powerful and he eventually moves from formed experiences (all form has the seeds of illusion in it) to a series of formless states, culminating in the eighth jhana, where there is neither perception nor nonperception of anything. 

    Figure 17-4 illustrates another succession of higher states within the Buddhist framework. Here the technique involves not one-pointed, successively refined concentration, but successively refined states of insight into the ultimate nature of one's own mind. Starting from either the state of Access Concentration (where ability to focus is quite high) or the state of Bare Insight (proficiency in noticing internal experiences), the meditater becomes increasingly able to observe the phenomena of the mind, and to see their inherently unsatisfactorily character. The ultimate goal is a state called nirodh, which is beyond awareness itself. Nirodh is the ultimate accomplishment in this particular version of Buddhism, higher than the eighth jhana on the Path of Concentration. The reader interested in more detail about these Buddhist orderings should consult Daniel Goleman's chapter to Transpersonal Psychologies {128}. 

    The third ordering (Figure 17-5) is John Lilly's conceptualization of the system taught by Oscar Ichazo in Arica, Chile. More background is available in the chapter by John Lilly and Joseph Harts in Transpersonal Psychologies {128}, as well as in Lilly's Center of the Cyclone {35}. 

    In the Arica ordering the value dimension is one of freedom and of which psychic center dominates consciousness. The numerical designation of each state indicates the number of cosmic laws supposedly governing that state, as expounded by Gurdjieff (see Kathy Riordan's chapter on Gurdjieff in Transpersonal Psychologies {128} and Ouspensky {48}), with a plus sign indicating positive valuation of that state. For example, in the +3 state only three laws govern; a person is less free in the +6 state, where six law govern. A minus sign indicates negative emotions. Thus the ordinary d-SoC, the-24 state, is a neurotic one of pain, guilt, fear, and other negative emotions. The-24 state is also under 96 laws, making it less free, as the number of governing laws doubles at each lower level. 

    Lilly notes that this ordering of highness does not hold for all possible tasks in this scheme. The +12 state and higher, for instance, involve a progressive loss of contact with external reality and so become lower states if one has to perform some external task like driving a car or eating. 


-- Charles Tart, 1975 

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Manipulated Mind

Brainwashing, conditioning, and how the human mind works

Ultimately, to eradicate terrorism and the conditions that spawn it, we must understand the human mind—how it evolved, how it works to create the crises we face, and what we can do to be more conscious in our response. 

For example, what happens in the minds of ordinary, well-educated human beings that they can carry out incomprehensible acts of terror in the name of a political or religious cause? Is their “conversion” so far beyond the norm or are the same influences at play in all our lives? What are the inherent functions of the human brain that lead to dangerous stereotyping and hatred on all sides? 

Scientific research of the past four decades illuminates many aspects of the nature of both the human mind and the current human predicament, and points the way to the changes needed. These three books explore some of the important research:


William Sargant

Malor Books, 1997

How can an evangelist convert a hardboiled sophisticate? Why does a prisoner of war sign a confession‚ that he knows is false? How is a criminal pressured into admitting his guilt? Do the evangelist, the POW's captor, and the policeman use similar methods to gain their ends?

These and other compelling questions are discussed in this definitive work by William Sargant, who for many years until his death in 1988 was a leading physician in psychological medicine. Sargant spells out and illustrates the basic technique used by evangelists, psychiatrists, and brainwashers to disperse the patterns of belief and behavior already established in the minds of their hearers, and to substitute new patterns for them.

'This mechanism holds the possibility of explaining and understanding much of how people suddenly change direction in life, and some of the strangest religious and spiritual behavior ever described among human beings. Perhaps most important, understanding it can give us insight into the formation of social bonds, the development of gangs and groups, and allow us to make more informed choices as individuals, as a society, and as a culture, how we want our own groups to develop.'
--Charles Swencionis, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine, from the Foreword

Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination

Denise Winn

Malor Books, 2000

Most of us cherish our values of individual freedom of thought. Yet after the Korean War, American POW's fell greater victim to Chinese brainwashing techniques than those of other nationalities. Some made bizarre and even impossible confessions.

The Manipulated Mind explores the pioneering research that, sparked by this issue, developed into one of the most provocative fields of current psychology. Today brainwashing is no longer seen as merely a special subversive technique, but rather as the clever manipulation of unrealized influences that are continually operating in all our lives.

The Manipulated Mind helps us to see how manipulated we really are. And, in doing so, it offers us an opportunity to become more self-directed.


Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich

Malor Books, 2000
There is no longer sufficient time to rely on the normal pace of cultural evolution to deal with today's dilemmas...

Human beings have always been the most adaptable creatures on the planet, and they should be able to chart a new course for themselves. Some of that charting is already being done. The old mind today is being challenged and changed by many scattered efforts. Can we bring these efforts together to produce a large-scale program for a rapid 'change-of-mind'? We know what the problem is. The 'solution' is not simple -- to generate the social and political will to move a program of conscious evolution to the top of the human agenda.

A free downloadable version is available from ISHK on our website.

It's a rare book that changes people's lives, rarer still a book that changes the world. In New World New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich not only have the audacity to attempt both things, but they offer just enough visionary thinking and nuts and bolts research to carry it off.'
--San Francisco Chronicle

'If we don't act on this information, our grandchildren may never forgive us.'
--Dan Goleman, New York Times

-- The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge

The Teaching Story

The Teaching Story: Observations on the Folklore
of Our “Modern” Thought
by Idries Shah (1968)

There is no nation, no community, without its stories. Children
are brought up on fairy tales; cults and religions depend upon them
for moral instruction; they are used for entertainment and for
training. They are usually catalogued as myths, as humorous tales,
as semi-historical fact, and so on, in accordance with what people
believe to be their origin and function.

But what a story can be used for is often what it was originally
intended to be used for. The fables of all nations provide a really
remarkable example of this, because, if you can understand them at
a technical level, they provide the most striking evidence of the
persistence of a consistent teaching, preserved sometimes through
mere repetition, yet handed down and prized simply because they
give a stimulus to the imagination or entertainment for the people
at large.

There are very few people nowadays who are able to make the
necessary use of stories. Those who know about the higher level of
being represented by stories can learn something from them, but
very little. Those who can experience this level can teach the use of stories. But first of all we must allow the working hypothesis that
there may be such a level operative in stories. We must approach
them from the point of view that they may on that level be
documents of technical value: an ancient yet still irreplaceable
method of arranging and transmitting a knowledge which can not
be put in any other way.

In this sense such stories (because all stories are not technical
literature), such stories may be regarded as part of a curriculum,
and as valid a representation of fact as, for instance, any
mathematical formula or scientific textbook.

Like any scientific textbook or mathematical formula,
however, stories depend for their higher power upon someone to
understand them at the higher level, someone who can establish
their validity in a course of study, people who are prepared to study
and use them, and so on.

At this point we can see quite easily that our conditioning
(which trains us to use stories for amusement purposes) is generally in itself sufficient to prevent us from making any serious study of stories as a vehicle for higher teaching. This tendency, the human tendency to regard anything as of use to man on a lower level than it could operate, runs through much of our studies, and has to be marked well.

Yet traditions about stories do in fact linger here and there.
People say that certain stories, if repeated, will provide some sort
of “good luck”; or that tales have meanings which have been
forgotten, and the like. But what would be called in contemporary
speech the “security aspect” of stories is almost complete in the
case of the genre which we call “teaching-stories” because of
another factor.

This factor is the operation of the law that a story, like a
scientific industrial formula, say, can have its developmental or
teaching effect only upon a person correctly prepared for its
understanding. This is why we must use stories in a manner which
will enable us to harvest their value for us in a given situation.

There is another problem which has to be appreciated when
dealing with stories. Unlike scientific formulae, they have a whole
series of developmental effects. In accordance with the degree of
preparation of an individual and a group, so will the successive
“layers” of the story become apparent. Outside of a proper school
where the method and content of stories is understood, there is
almost no chance of an arbitrary study of stories yielding much.

But we have to go back to an even earlier stage in order to
ground ourselves, prepare ourselves, for the value of the story. This is the stage at which we can familiarise ourselves with the story and regard it as a consistent and productive parallel or allegory of certain states of mind. Its symbols are the characters in the story. The way in which they move conveys to the mind the way in which the human mind can work. In grasping this in terms of men and women, animals and places, movement and manipulation of a tale, we can put ourselves into a relationship with the higher faculties possible to the mind, by working on a lower level, the level of visualisation.

Let us examine a story or two from the foregoing points of
view. First, take a story of the Elephant in the Dark. A number
of blind people, or sighted people in a dark house, grope 
and find an elephant. Each touches only a part; each gives
to his friends outside a different account of what he has
experienced. Some think that it was a fan (the ears of the animal);
another takes the legs for pillars; a third the tail for a rope, and so

 This has actually been published as a children's book. It appears in the books of Rumi and Sanai. We have made it the subject of a commercial film, The Dermis Probe. This story, on the lowest possible level, makes fun of the scientists and academics who try to explain things through the evidence which they can evaluate, and none other. In another direction, on the same level, it is humorous in as much as it makes us laugh at the stupidity of people who work on such little evidence. As a philosophical teaching it says that man is blind and is trying to assess something too great for assessment by means of inadequate tools. In the religious field it says that God is everywhere and everything, and man gives different names to what seem to him to be separate things, but which are in fact only parts of some greater whole which he cannot perceive because “he is blind” or “there is no light.”

The interpretations are far and high as anyone can go. Because
of this, people address themselves to this story in one or more of
these interpretations. They then accept or reject them. Now they
can feel happy; they have arrived at an opinion about the matter.
According to their conditioning they produce the answer. Now look
at their answers. Some will say that this is a fascinating and
touching allegory of the presence of God. Others will say that it is
showing people how stupid mankind can be. Some say it is antischolastic.

Others that it is just a tale copied by Rumi from Sanai -
and so on. Because none of these people can taste an inner content, none will even begin to imagine that one exists. As I say these words the ordinary mind will easily be able to dispose of them by thinking that this is just someone who has provided a sophisticated explanation for something which cannot be checked.

But we are not here to justify ourselves. We are here to open
the door of the mind to the possibility that stories might be
technical documents. We are here to say that there is a method of
making use of these documents. Especially we are here to say that
the most ancient and most important knowledge available to man is
in part contained in these documents. And that this form, however
primitive or old-fashioned it may seem, is in fact almost the only
form in which certain teachings can be captured, preserved and
transmitted. And, too, that these stories are conscious works of art,
devised by people who knew exactly what they were doing, for the
use of other people who knew exactly what could be done with

It may take a conventional thinker some time to understand
that if he is looking for truth and a hidden teaching, it may be
concealed in a form which would be the last, perhaps, which he
would consider to be applicable to his search.

But, in order to possess himself of this knowledge, he must
take it from where it really is, not from where he imagines it might

There is plenty of evidence of the working of this method, that
of the story deliberately concocted and passed down, in all cultures.
We do not have to confine ourselves to Eastern fables. But it is in
stories of Eastern origin that we find the most complete and least
deteriorated forms of the tradition. We therefore start with them.
They lead us, naturally, to the significant documents in the Western
and other branches of the tradition.

In approaching the study of stories, then, we have to make sure
that we reclaim the information that stories contain, shall we say, a
message. In this sense we are like people whose technology has
fallen into disuse, rediscovering the devices used by our ancestors
as we become fitted for it. Then we have to realise that we have to
familiarise ourselves with certain stories, so that we can hold them
in our minds, like memorizing a formula. In this use, the teaching
story resembles the mnemonic or formula which we trot out to help
us calculate something: like saying: “one kilo equals 2.2 pounds in
weight”; or even “thirty days hath September.”

Now we have to realise that, since we are dealing with a form
of knowledge which is specific in as much as ii is planned to act in
a certain way under certain conditions, those conditions must be
present if we are to be able to use the story coherently. By
coherently I mean here, if the story is to be the guide whereby we
work through the various stages of consciousness open to us.

This means that we must not only get to know certain tales; we
must study them, or even just familiarise ourselves with them, in a
certain order. This idea tends to find opposition among literate
people who are accustomed to doing their own reading, having
been led to believe that the more you read the more likely you are
to know more. But this quantitative approach is absurd when you
are dealing with specific material. If you went to the British
Museum library and decided to read everything in it in order to
educate yourself, you would not get very far. It is only the ignorant,
even in the formal sense, who cannot understand the need for
particular kinds of specialisation. This is well exemplified by the
club porter who once said to me, in all seriousness “You are a
college man, Sir, please explain football pool permutations to me.”
It is in order to get some possibility of right study that I
continually say things like “Let us get down out of the trees and
start to build.”

So far, however, we have not been saying much more than this:

1. A special, effective and surpassingly important teaching is
contained in certain materials. In this case the materials are stories.

2. We must accept the possibility before we can begin to
approach the study of this knowledge.

3. Having accepted, even as a working hypothesis, the
foregoing contentions, we have to set about the study in an efficient
manner. In the case of the tales, the efficient manner means to
approach the right stories, in the right manner, under the right

Failure to adhere to these principles will make it impossible for
us to function on the high level needed. If, for example, we settle
for merely knowing a lot of stories, we may become mere
raconteurs or consumers. If we settle for the moral or social
teaching of the story, we simply duplicate the activities of people
working in that domain. If we compare stories to try to see where
the higher level is, we will not find it, because we do not know
unless guided which are the ones to compare with each other, under what conditions, what to look for, whether we can perceive the secret content, in what order to approach the matter.

So the story remains a tool as much as anything else. Only the
expert can use the tool, or produce anything worthwhile with it.
Having heard and accepted the above assertions, people always
feel impatience. They want to get on with the job. But, not knowing
that “everything takes a minimum time,” or at any rate not applying
this fact, they destroy the possibility of progress in a real sense.

Having established in a certain order the above facts, we have
to follow through with a curriculum of study which will enable us
to profit by the existence of this wonderful range of material. If you
start to study what you take to be teaching-stories indiscriminately,
you are more than likely to get only a small result, even with the
facts already set out. Why is this?

Not only because you do not know the conditions under which
the study must take place, but because the conditions themselves
contain requirements of self-collection which seem to have no
relationship to the necessities for familiarising oneself with a
literary form.

We must, therefore, work on the mind to enable it to make use
of the story, as well as presenting it with the story. This “work” on
the mind is correctly possible only in the living situation, when
certain people are grouped together in a certain manner, and
develop a certain form of rapport. This, and no other, is the purpose
of having meetings at which people are physically present.

If read hurriedly, or with one or other of the customary biases
which are common among intellectuals but not other kinds of
thinkers, the foregoing two paragraphs will be supposed to contain
exclusivistic claims which are not in fact there.

This is itself one of the interesting - and encouraging -
symptoms of the present phase of human intellectual folklore. If a
tendency can readily be seen manifesting itself, whether in physics,
scholasticism or metaphysics, one may be approaching its solution.

What is this tendency?

The tendency is to demand a justification of what are taken to
be certain claims in the language in which the demand is made. My
stressing, for instance, that meetings at which people are present
who have been grouped in a certain manner, may easily (and
incorrectly) be supposed to state that the kind of learning to which I
am referring can take place in no other manner. The intention of the
paragraph, however, was simply to refer to one concrete manner in
which what I have called “a living situation” can come about. A
meeting of a number of people in a room is the only form of such a
situation familiar to any extent to an average reader of such
materials as this.

I have used the word “folklore” to refer to a state of mind of
modern man closely similar to that of less developed communities.
But there is a great difference between the two folklores. In what
we regard as ingenuous folklore, the individual may believe that
certain objects have magical or special characteristics, and he is
more or less aware of what these are claimed to be.

In modern man's folklore, he believes that certain contentions
must be absurd, and holds on to other assumptions, without being
aware that he is doing so. He is motivated, in fact, by almost
completely hidden prejudices.

To illustrate the working of such preconceptions, it is often
necessary to provide a “shock” stimulus.

Such a stimulus occurs both in the present series of contentions
about the teaching-story (because, and only because, certain
information about it is lost to the community being addressed) and
exists equally strongly within the frameworks of such stories
themselves, when one can view them in a structural manner.

This train of thought itself produces an illustration of the
relative fragmentation of contemporary minds. Here it is:
Although it is a matter of the everyday experience of almost
everyone on this planet, irrespective of his stage of culture or his
community, that anyone thing may have a multiplicity of uses,
functions and meanings, man does not apply this experience to
cases which - for some occult reason - he regards as insusceptible
to such attention. In other words, a person may admit that an
orange has colour, aroma, food value, shape, texture and so on; and he will readily concede that an orange may be many different things according to what function is desired, observed or being fulfilled. But if you venture to suggest that, say, a story has an equal range of possible functions, his folkloric evaluating mechanism will make him say: “No, a story is for entertainment,” or else something almost as Byzantine: “Yes, of course. Now, are you talking about the psychological, social, anthropological or philosophical uses?”

Nobody has told him that there are, or might be, categories of
effective function of a story in ranges which he has not yet
experienced, perhaps not yet heard of, perhaps even cannot
perceive or even coherently discuss, until a certain basic
information process has taken place in his mind.
And to this kind of statement the answer is pat and hard to
combat. It is: “You are trying to be clever.” This, you may recall is
only the “yaa-boo” reaction of the schoolchild who has come up
against something which it cannot, at least at that moment,
rationalise away or fully understand.

from Point, Number 4 (Winter 1968-69), pp. 4-9.

For more on the contemporary study of Teaching-Stories, see: The Idries Shah Foundation.