January 7, 2006
Q: What is altered states of consciousness? - Layperson
A: The phrase "altered state of consciousness" was coined in the 1970s and describes induced changes in one's mental state, almost always temporary. A synonymous phrase is "altered states of awareness".
An altered state of consciousness can come about accidentally through fever, sleep deprivation, starvation, oxygen deprivation, nitrogen narcosis (deep diving), or a traumatic accident. Intentionally it can sometimes be reached by the use of a sensory deprivation tank or mind-control techniques, hypnosis, meditation, prayer, or disciplines (e.g. yoga, Sufism or Surat Shabda Yoga). It is sometimes attained through the ingestion of psychoactive drugs such as alcohol and opiates, or hallucinogenic plants and chemicals such as LSD, 2C-I, peyote, marijuana, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and datura (Jimson weed).
Naturally occurring altered states of consciousness include channeling, dreams, premonitions, euphoria, ecstasy, out of body experiences, and "being in the zone".
The conspiracy to reduce consciousness to intellectual awareness of the
physical world has been in evidence for at least five thousand years. Over the
centuries the mental and psychic powers that only mystics and seers now possess
have been filtered out of most people. So we now assume that our narrow,
tightly-bound consciousness is normal and natural. "Ordinary
consciousness" is "normal" only in the strict sense of "statistically most
frequent," not inherently "good" or "natural" as the term is sometimes
misconstrued to mean.
All these studies focused on one conclusion: increased brain stimulation in an enriched environment produces not only a growth in size and weight of the cortex but completely alters and enriches the quality of the entire cerebral cortex.
The brain is an electrically powered and electricity-generating organ. Composed of an estimated one hundred billion neurons, each neuron produces and transmits electrical impulses which travel from the cell body down long fibers called axons until they reach a junction, or synapse, with another neuron. At the junction point the electrical impulses fire chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, across the synaptic gap to receptors on the next cell. Having received the message, that neuron then generates its own electrical impulse and sends it to other neurons to which it is connected. Each neuron can be connected to thousands of other neurons, each simultaneously sending and receiving impulses to and from thousands of other neurons--so one neuron can electrically alter millions of other neurons.
To get an idea of how complex this electrical system is, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that "a single human brain has a greater number of possible connections among its nerve cells than the total number of atomic particles in the universe."
The brain is part of the overall human nervous system, composed of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system includes the sensory neurons that link the brain and spinal cord to sensory receptors and efferent neurons connected to the muscles, glands, and organs.
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is surrounded by three protective layers of tissue called the meninges, and bathed in liquid called the cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid also protects the brain from injury and provides nourishment to its surrounding tissues.
Let's take a look at various parts of the brain:
Quantitative EEG (QEEG) is digital recording of the EEG. For decades it was only possible to record the various brain waves on paper with the traditional polygraph. The EEG rhythms were amplified and used to drive pens, one for each recording electrode. As the pens fluctuated from the EEG rhythms, a long piece of graph paper was dragged under the pens by a motor, creating the graph of the electrical activity on the outer surface of the brain.
Drawing conclusions based on logic: one thing following another in logical order.
Making leaps of insight, often based on incomplete patterns, hunches, feelings and visual images.
Thinking in terms of linked ideas, one thought directly following another, often leading to a convergent conclusion.
Seeing whole things at once, perceiving
the overall patterns and structures, often
leading to divergent conclusions.
Using words to name, describe, define.
Awareness of things, but minimal
connection with words.
Keeping track of time, sequencing one thing after another.
Without sense of time.
Drawing conclusions based on reason and facts.
Not requiring a basis of reason or facts;
willingness to suspend judgment.
Figuring things out step-by-step and part-by-part.
Putting things together to form wholes.
Taking out a small bit of information and using it to represent the whole thing.
Seeing relationship between things,
understanding metaphoric relationships.
Using a symbol to stand for something.
Relating to things as they are at the
Using numbers as in counting.
Seeing where things are in relation to other things, and how parts go together to form a whole
From their early experiments with LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline at Harvard, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert discovered the importance of set and setting:
Without the concepts of "set" and "setting" we're unable to explain why drugs vary so unpredictably in their physiological and psychological effects on various users.
"...the combined effects of set and setting can easily overshadow the pharmacological effects of a drug as stated in a pharmacology text. One can arrange set and setting so that a dose of an amphetamine will produce sedation or a dose of a barbiturate stimulation."
Thus it's absurd to speak of "the effect of marijuana," "the effect of meditation," and so on. The "effect" depends on what users expect and on the expectations of the social setting in which they take the psychedelic drug or carry out specific procedures. But federal and state governments have continued to oppose any use of psychedelic drugs, claiming that they're all bad under all circumstances. Our nation's leaders continue to push the mind-and body-destroying "official" drugs of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, among many others created by a pharmaceutical industry which buys politicians in large economy quantities.
What positive elements assist us to break through to a positive non-ordinary consciousness?
5) Contemplation of art (music, painting, prose, poetry, drama)
7) Psychedelic drugs
8) Brain stimulation and bio-feedback
Meditation has been used for centuries by spiritual practitioners to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness. Dreaming, especially lucid dreaming in which the dreamer controls the dream activity, is a particularly powerful means of entering an altered state of consciousness. Hypnosis induced by an informed hypnotist or by oneself can enable us to enter into non-ordinary states of consciousness wherein we are able to gain enhanced control of our mental and physiological activities. Sex, within the proper context, enables us to achieve altered states.
Contemplation of art or nature can lead to epiphanies. The meaning of "epiphany" has expanded beyond its Greek origins--the manifestation of a god--to include special and sudden raptures. In this article I'm using the term epiphany to refer to an episodic mystical experience. These raptures occur to men and women from virtually every nation and culture. Throughout the ages, humans have undergone harrowing experiences, braved drug intoxication and risked madness to experience intense altered states of consciousness.
With the proper set and setting, psychedelic drugs can produce
an altered sense of reality. Such experiences of altered consciousness usually
last from one hour to several days. Though alcohol is often used in a negative
"setting" such as at a bar or a party, where the expectation is aggressive
behavior, with the proper set and setting alcohol can promote a heightened state
One of the great mysteries of human life, as Michael Pollan explains, is that "there are plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness."
"In ancient times, people all over the world grew or gathered sacred plants (and fungi) with the power to inspire visions or conduct them on journeys to other worlds; some of these people, who are sometimes called shamans, returned with the kind of spiritual knowledge that underwrites whole religions."At the beginning of most of the world's religions we find some kind of psychoactive plant or fungus: the peyote cactus, the Amanita muscaria and psilocybin mushrooms, the ergot fungus, the fermented grape, ayahuasca, and cannabis. Ancient people experimented with these psychotropic (mind-altering) substances to achieve a heightened state of consciousness.
"Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,--for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself." -William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience
Gerald Oster, a biophysicist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City discovered that pulsations called binaural beats occurred in the brain when tones of different frequency were presented separately to each ear.
Robert Monroe claimed to have developed tapes which send signals separately to each ear--signals of 400 and 404 hertz, for example--resulting in the sounds blending inside the brain and setting up a binaural beat frequency of 4 Hz (theta waves), producing a state of brain hemisphere equilibrium and altered states. At his Institute of Applied Sciences in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia, institute employees claim to train people in achieving altered states using Hemi-Sync tapes. Some of the trainees feel they achieve out-of-body experiences, but this may very well be fantasy. At present, a week's training session costs $1695 at the Institute, plus, of course, transportation to the Institute and back.
Some brain state researchers are critical of Monroe's methods. Dr. Lester Fehmi, director of the Princeton Behavioral Medicine and Biofeedback Clinic, says that Monroe's effect is real, "but it doesn't teach you how to get there." Dr. Elmer Green of the Menninger Foundation agrees. "It's only when the volition is involved, and you want to do something, either to escape or to accomplish something, that you really learn something." The hypnogogic image states which Green discovered in his research sometime involve extra-sensory perception (ESP) and precognition. It may be that these states are the same as those which Monroe clients experience, which Monroe trainers interpret as out-of-body states but Green interprets as hypnogogic imagery.
The Monroe Institute demands (yes, demands, not merely recommends) that a person purchase its seven different training CDs in sequence. This allows them to force a person interested in their training material to buy each of the CDs for a total of over $800--an exorbitant amount. I personally know two persons who were hired as trainers in the Monroe techniques--and it's clear that neither of them received any lasting beneficial effect from their training and their work with clients. Because of these factors, it's an open question if serious seekers would waste their money if they purchased Monroe Institute training sessions or products.
There is a thriving biofeedback industry, with pricey training programs and pricey machines. Some of the machines run as high as $10,000 and one wonders why someone doesn't produce a reasonably-priced biofeedback machine for the average consumer who is also a serious student of altered states of consciousness.
|Reality Dimension||State of Consciousness||Activities Leading|
to the State
|Higher Dimension of Reality||Higher State of Consciousness||Spiritual contact|
|Non-Ordinary Dimension of Reality||Non-ordinary State of Consciousness||
|Consensus Reality||Ordinary State of Consciousness||Physical activity, mental activity|
|1750 to 1950||Attempting to understand the real nature of the physical world and the spiritual world||Informed reading and
Appreciation of higher values (art and nature)
democracy within the
general structure of
by the wealthy)
|1950 to 1990||No genuine attempt to understand the real nature of the physical world or the spiritual world||Non-education leading to incapacity to read or listen||Plutocracy: rule by |
the wealthy buying
|1990 to 2003||No interest in understanding the
real nature of the physical world or the spiritual world
|Conditioning leading to incapacity
to read, write, listen, understand, appreciate higher values
Splattering of images and sounds
Creating incoherent pastiches: e.g. TV commercials with incoherent image flashes
Movies with superimposing dialogue, music, and images: e.g. Magnolia
Two distinct economic classes: the rich and the poor
fostered by the highest
rate of immigration in
U.S. history, resulting in ethnic and religious "balkanization"
(splintering of the population into divisive, competing units)
Starbuck also discovered that imagination and
social pressure were the two dominant factors in "conversion," and he was able
to determine what "a small part rational considerations play in conversion as
compared with instinctive." Surrender to the religious authority figure
(minister or priest) is necessary for "conversion" to occur and results in the
subject's ego being "lifted up into new significance."
The essence of "conversion" is the induction of a state of mere feeling which, when it has passed, leaves no spiritual improvement and often results in the subject feeling like a victim. Frequently the experience is so humiliating after the fact that the subject rejects not only the "conversion," but anything having to do with religion.
Starbuck discovered that the forces working in revivals are identical to suggestion and hypnosis--what we today would call brainwashing. The negative aspects of "conversion" are primarily caused by the self-serving religious leaders.
"An unwise and unfortunate use of revivals is that they take certain social standards and attempt to force them indiscriminately on all persons alike. The notion is formed, and, doubtless, rightly, that the only means of escape for one whose evil habits are deeply ingrained is through repentance, a definite regeneration and conversion. There seems to be practical ignorance of the other type of conversion, i.e., sudden awakening following the sense of imperfection, and still greater disregard of the fact that it is not natural for certain temperaments to develop spasmodically, or even to exhibit marked stadia in their growth. Consequently, the normal means of regeneration for the wayward and for hardened sinners becomes a dogma, and is held up as the only means of escape for children, for natures spiritually immature, for the virtuous, and for those temperamentally unfit. A certain competition for supremacy among churches, and for success among individual workers, exaggerates the evil. Each new convert is sometimes vulgarly called by revivalists another star in the crowns which they will wear in the future life. If there were only power of discrimination, they would see that their success in dragging many so-called converts into the whirl of excitement, hypnotising them, and leaving them empty afterward, is more fitly likened to the triumph of a man of prowess who wears scalps of victims as trophies."The psychological manipulation of Christian believers has a long history. Leaving aside the peculiar mind manipulation practiced by Roman Catholicism, we can see that the basic tenets of Protestantism, from the time of Luther, were particularly well-suited to inducing terror in a submissive penitent.
"God," says Luther "is the God of the humble, the miserable, the oppressed, and the desperate, and of those that are brought even to nothing; and his nature is to give sight to the blind, to comfort the broken-hearted, to justify sinners, to save the very desperate and damned. Now that pernicious and pestilent opinion of man's own righteousness, which will not be a sinner, unclean, miserable, and damnable, but righteous and holy, suffereth not God to come to his own natural and proper work. Therefore God must take this maul to hand (the law, I mean) to beat in pieces and bring to nothing this beast with her vain confidence, that she may so learn at length by her own misery that she is utterly forlorn and damned. But here lieth the difficulty, that when a man is terrified and cast down, he is so little able to raise himself up again and say, 'Now I am bruised and afflicted enough; now is the time of grace; now is the time to hear Christ.' The foolishness of man's heart is so great that then he rather seeketh to himself more laws to justify his conscience. 'If I live,' saith he, 'I will amend my life: I will do this, I will do that.' But here, except thou do the quite contrary, except thou send Moses away with his law, and in these terrors and this anguish lay hold upon Christ who died for thy sins, look for no salvation. Thy cowl, thy shaven crown, thy chastity, thy obedience, thy poverty, thy works, thy merits? what shall all these do? what shall the law of Moses avail? If I, wretched and damnable sinner, through works of merits could have loved the Son of God, and so come to him, what needed he to deliver himself for me? If I, being a wretch and damned sinner, could be redeemed by any other price, what needed the Son of God to be given? But because there was no other price, therefore he delivered neither sheep, ox, gold, nor silver, but even God himself, entirely and wholly 'for me,' even 'for me,' I say a miserable, wretched sinner. Now therefore, I take comfort and apply this to myself. And this manner of applying is the very true force and power of faith. For he died not to justify the righteous, but the un-righteous, and to make them the children of God.'"-Commentary on GalatiansIn the nineteenth century this Protestant dogma so suitable to psychological manipulation was refashioned by revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards. His tormented parishioners left their nail marks as they gripped the church pews in paroxysms of terror while listing to Edwards rail about "Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God."
"Candidates for the regenerate life, moreover, were such as were prepared, as how few of to-day are?, to renounce and transvalue all the world's values, to step entirely out of the world-stream by the current of which the majority are content to be borne along, to negate the affirmations of the senses and natural reason which for the multitude provide the criterion of the desirable and the true, and generally to adopt towards phenomenal existence an attitude incomprehensible to the average man to whom that existence is of paramount moment. They were animated by no motives of merely personal salvation or of spiritual superiority over their fellows; on the contrary they will be found to have been the humblest, as they were the wisest, of men. They had advanced far beyond that complacent stage where religion consists in fidelity to certain credal propositions and in 'being good' or as good as one can, and where sufficiency and robustness of faith are represented by the facile optimism of 'God's in His heaven; all's right with the world.' Their philosophic basis was rather that 'the world is out of joint' and all men with it, and in a condition sorely needing saviours and co-operators with God to reduce and adjust the dislocation." -M. A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850
We must understand that "regeneration" is an actual fact within the mystical tradition, no mere allegory or metaphor. As we have been "generated" in the physical world, so we can--through the proper preparation and knowledge--experience "regeneration" into a Higher Consciousness.
Even though we have become entranced by the physical world, there still abides in us, though in a state of atrophy, a residual germ of the divine principle which can be stimulated into activity to raise the personal consciousness to the point of unity and identity with the Universal Mind.
A number of
modern mystical teachers have pointed out that the next phase of human evolution
will involve higher states of consciousness involving superseding of the old
structures of time, space, and false consciousness.
If this vision of human evolution is true--and other authentic spiritual leaders posit similar views--then the achievement of non-ordinary, higher states of consciousness becomes a necessity, not merely a pleasant option.
Though ordinary humans are rapidly losing the ability to understand reality, a small contemporary group is developing supernormal powers through revitalizing the Perennial Tradition.
There is now present an entirely new factor in human evolution which began about ten thousand years ago. Whereas up to that time, human evolution had been primarily powered by unconscious physical and social stimuli, it is now possible for human evolution to be advanced through conscious effort.Perennialists are a race of adventurers, dwelling invisibly among mankind, who have evolved to the point of being able to deliberately and actively return to the divine Fount of Reality. They have attained Being, union with the One, and teach these mysteries to authentic seekers. Because of this, they have a unique importance for the human race in revealing humankind's full potential and how this potential can be reSalized.
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