New Dawn No. 120 - May-June 2010
from NewDawnMagazine Website
The world around us comes to life, and is filled with
an atmosphere of harmony and meaning. A spirit-force seems to
pervade all things, and the spaces between them, bringing everything
The whole material world may
dissolve away, into an ocean of spiritual radiance.
Neuroscientists generally believe that HSCs are caused by changes in brain activity.
However, just because HSCs or awakening experiences appear to be associated with certain brain states, it doesn't necessarily mean that the brain states produce the experiences.
could be the other way round - increased electrical activity in the
frontal lobes, or less activity in the posterior superior parietal
lobe, could just as easily be the result of higher states of
consciousness rather than causes of them. These scientists may only be looking at the
'footprints' of the experiences, rather than the cause of them.
The first type are wild, ecstatic experiences that happen when the normal homeostasis of our brain and bodies is disrupted. This is a 'loophole' which human beings have made use of throughout history. This is why there has always been a link between fasting and spirituality, for example.
A prolonged lack of food appears to make the hold which ordinary consciousness has over us looser, and bring us closer to an awakened vision of the world.
Fasting puts us 'out of homeostasis' by causing
physiological changes, such as a lower level of blood glucose,
higher levels of insulin and a lower body temperature.
The Vision Quest was a spiritual exercise used by some Native American peoples as a way of building up spiritual power and communicating with spirits. The person would go to a solitary spot - often the top of a mountain - and stay there for up to four days, fasting and exposing themselves to the elements (usually wearing almost no clothes, even if the weather was cold).
He or she would try to attain a state of complete attentiveness to their surroundings, since sacred powers might try to communicate with them at any moment.
As a result, they might experience a higher state of
consciousness (that is, higher than their normal low level higher
state), with strong feelings of peace and a sense of connection to
the natural world, and also be given special knowledge - such as a
message or a new song or dance - from spirits.
These 'mystery cults' were usually centered around particular gods, but rather than just worshipping them, the participants aimed to become one with the gods, or to be possessed by them.
They fasted and went without sleep before ceremonies, and used a variety of other methods of disrupting homeostasis during them:
Pain can also be used as a way of inducing awakening experiences.
We can see this in the long tradition of asceticism, for instance, which runs through all of the world's religions and spiritual traditions. An ascetic is someone who deliberately denies his body's needs, and inflicts pain and discomfort on himself, either through fasting, abstaining from sensual pleasures and comforts, or by physically beating or injuring himself.
This sounds like sadism, and for some ascetics it
probably was. It's also likely that some ascetics were motivated by
morbid self-hatred and neurotic feelings of guilt towards sex and
other bodily processes, which made them want to punish themselves.
Aside from the famous ascetics like St Simeon Stylites and Henry de Suso, there were probably many others who followed similar practices but didn't live long enough to gain any recognition.
As a short term spiritual
technology asceticism is fairly futile anyway; you might gain a
brief glimpse of a higher reality but this only lasts as long as the
chemical changes that the pain and suffering have produced inside
you. Your body always returns to homeostasis, and you always have to
return your constricted normal consciousness.
If we know that
all an ascetic is really doing by torturing himself is changing his
normal chemistry, then surely, you might say, it'd be more sensible
to just interfere with this chemistry directly - by taking drugs,
for example, which would give us the same effect but wouldn't
involve any self-harm.
The early Indo-European conquerors of India worshipped their drink Soma, which most scholars believe was made from magic mushrooms; while the initiates of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries used a psychoactive drink called kykeon.
Indigenous peoples often use drugs for spiritual purposes too: Native Americans ingest sacred plants such as fly-agaric mushrooms and peyote, while the Australian Aborigines have a powerful form of tobacco called pituri.
In the right circumstances - and the right state of mind - psychotropic drugs can, it seems, take our minds out of the 'mould' of ordinary consciousness, and give us access to wider and more intense realities.
Normally there's a continual outflow of our life-energy - it's used up through mental activity (such as cognition, concentration and perception) and through our emotions and instincts.
But sometimes, when we're relaxed, fairly inactive and
our minds are quiet, this outflow or energy decreases. Life-energy
becomes concentrated inside us, which generates an awakening
When we sit down to meditate, we take ourselves off the treadmill of daily tasks and activities for a while, and sit quietly and close our eyes, so that we don't use up much life-energy through concentration and perception.
Our 'thought-chatter' slows down too,
and we normally become free of emotional activity and sexual desire.
As a result, after meditation there is an inner concentration of our
life-energy, it's concentrated and intensified rather than dispersed
The beauty of nature
may have a similar effect to a mantra in meditation, directing
attention away from the chattering of the ego-mind. Cognitive
activity may fade away, until life-energy intensifies, bringing a
sense of inner peace and wholeness and heightened awareness of the
Similarly, the poet Ted Hughes often experienced a meditative state while fishing. He notes how poetry depends upon the ability to intensely focus the mind, and believes that he acquired this ability through fishing.
He describes the effect of staring at a float for long periods:
This may also be part of the reason for connection between sex and spiritual states.
The sheer pleasure of sex can shift our attention away from the ego-mind, which may fall silent as a result, bringing what D.H. Lawrence described as,
At the same time, sex may release new energy inside us, energy which is normally dormant but can arise and shoot through us like electricity.
The latter have more physical and psychological risks. Drug
experiences (and other HD states) produce a powerful blast which
immobilizes the ego, and if this blast is regularly repeated the ego
structure may dissolve, and never be able to re-form itself.
You could compare it to schoolchildren tricking their teacher into leaving the room so they can enjoy a few minutes of freedom while she's away - but the teacher always comes back again, of course, and then everything goes back to normal.
On the other hand, ILE states can bring about permanent change in a more organic and positive way.
They can change the structure of the psyche without damaging it, and
gradually create a new state of being, so that wakefulness becomes
not just a temporary experience, but a permanent state.
For some people, their first experiences of psychedelics might have the same effect as experiencing flashes of normal complete vision would have on a man who's been partially blind all his life without realizing it.
The powerful transcendent
reality they've been exposed to may also bring about a change in
their personality, at least over the following months, and perhaps
even years. It might make them more humble, less materialistic or
egotistical, and give them a sense of security or hope, making them
aware that the world is more meaningful and harmonious than they had
This is what happened to the Harvard professor Richard Alpert, for example, who was one of the pioneers of research into psychedelics.
He conducted experiments with psilocybin at Harvard University with Timothy Leary in 1962, and continued studying the effects of psychedelic even after he was expelled from the university.
However, Alpert quickly became disillusioned with drugs, doubting that they could lead to permanent change, and travelled to India, where he learned yoga and meditation and took the name Ram Dass.
He has spent the rest of his life
exploring spiritual practices and teachings and spreading the wisdom
he has found.
As the religious scholar Huston Smith put it,