top of page

THE THREE GREAT AGENDAS: #3 Ignorance or Melting the Iceberg of Dissociation

The last and final and most powerful agenda of all is not-seeing.

The much-overlooked but ground-breaking American psychologist Harry Stacks Sullivan spoke of the “selective inattention that covers the world like a tent” and this accurately describes the third great strategy of the ego: our dizzying ability to semi-deliberately ignore things. Hence the rather confusing Buddhist name for this strategy: ignorance.

That’s juicy dissociation.

Ignorance in this sense is the very opposite of stupid. It’s a very clever strategy of scalpel-sharp dissociation which selectively “un-sees” salient features of our experience in order to go on living in our Heath-Robinson machines.

When we criticise our boss for not buying a round at the pub but we selectively ignore the fact that we ourselves never buy people drinks, that’s dissociation.

When we persist in telling people how lovely our childhood was without a single happy memory to illustrate the point. That’s juicy dissociation.

When we realise that our belief and self-description as a “writer” might be at odds with the fact that we haven’t put pen to paper for the last 10 years, let alone written the great British novel.

When you persist in fantasising about a reigniting a relationship with an ex who everyone else in the world can clearly see has moved on from you and is dating another. You see nothing of the sort in all those photos of him with the same man on each Facebook update.

In some sense, dissociation is the motor of all our suffering. Because when we unconsciously refuse to see things that are right in front of us then we are constantly bashing into them.

The inhibition of certain perceptual pathways in the experiencing brain protects the human organism from overload

In terms of Buddhist psychology, this selective inattention is the work of “consciousness” – most specifically the 7th consciousness – the editor function that allows the illusion of a separate ego to go unchecked.

From a modern neuro-psychological point of view, what is happening here is a form of structural dissociation. The inhibition of certain perceptual pathways in the experiencing brain protects the human organism from overload.

When we were little – particularly when we were experiencing something overwhelming like neglect or fright or (in the worst instance) abuse – then our consciousness learnt to dissociate and fade out at the moments of greatest overwhelm. On an everyday level, this erasure of self-experience is common to all of us (for example when we edit out the ticking of a clock in a room or we don’t remember the last 20 miles of a motorway drive) but when it erases big chunks of human experience like intimacy or relationships or strong emotion, then it becomes a structural part of our personality.

These patterns of erasure or not seeing add up to our style of being in the world.

For most of us, this is adaptive. We bumble along through life just ignoring the things that really bug us, or which would overwhelm us, and it’s fine. However, when this dissociation becomes “ego-dystonic”, that is it gets in the way of us functioning in the human world, then it becomes a problem.

All those unobserved patterns of self-isolation and self-delusion that impact others

For meditators, all of these patterns of non-seeing start to be a problem. Most profoundly, all those unobserved and unexperienced patterns of self-isolation and self-delusion that impact others. The more we live in a severely edited dream world, the less shared space there is to relate to other people. And, the less of you there is for other people to really grab hold of.

If we dissociate all our anger, for example, and blithely believe the ego storyline “I’m not an angry person”, what happens when – as must inevitably happen in human life – someone crosses you, or provokes your human organism into rage or defensive fury? Well, what happens is massive dissociation. You act outrage or aggression in all sorts of unconscious ways. The people around you feel – quite rightly – attacked. You are in denial of your actions. A whole fabric of further denials and self-justificatory lies springs up. The ego cocoon becomes horribly dense.

In many ways, dissociation or not seeing is the mother of all the other agendas because it underpins so much of our unconscious grasping and aggressing.

It’s also horribly shaming to have your dissociated side revealed to you. This is why intimate relationships can be so painful.

I saw my birth family’s social dynamic rear up from the dissociated depths like an iceberg

My husband-to-be recently asked me after a dinner party with friends if I thought he was stupid or if I, in fact, didn’t like him very much. I was baffled and horrified. Of course, I loved him! But why then, he pointed out, did I continually belittle and roll my eyes when he was speaking.

Suddenly, vividly, horrifically, I saw my birth family’s social dynamic rear up from the dissociated depths like an iceberg. The tendency to tease, to vent mini-aggressions in public, to gang up socially. It all felt queasily clear: this was indeed what I was unconsciously doing all these years later with the man I love. Urgh. How humiliating, how shameful.

Luckily, there can be enough space in a relationship for these dissociated icebergs to surface and be noted, rather than ripping open the hull of the ship. It requires a certain tolerance of shame (which is the most horrifying of human emotions) and some humour. But the relief of seeing clearly is amazing. The same gentle space ought to be a quality of our sitting practice too. Space that’s warm, humorous and forgiving enough, for all our icebergs to drift into view. Maybe even to melt.

This is why so much emphasis is put on warmth in Buddhist practice. But alongside the warmth, there has to be clear-seeing or vidya. The ultimate tool against ignorance is the stillness, patience and open-heartedness of meditation. Being open to the possibility that your dissociation is very likely part of the problem. Having the humility to step into that shameful place of clear-seeing. And then, of course, to make amends.

I’d love to know your thoughts about the Iceberg of dissociation. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter. Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

4 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page