Excerpt from Inner Paths to Outer Space.
“We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing… a wakefulness that is the birthright of us all, though few put it to use.”
The Shamanic State of Consciousness
“This type of ASC (altered state of consciousness) is dreamlike, but shares with the waking world a feeling of reality. In this state the shaman – like a skilled navigator – is keenly aware of the surrounding reality (both ordinary and nonordinary), and can give direction at will to her or his movements. An ASC is one that differs significantly from ordinary or basic consciousness. Baseline Consciousness might be best defined by the presence of two important subjective characteristics: the sense of self at the center of perception and a sense that this self is identified with the body. States of consciousness in which we lose identification with our body or with our self are definitely ASCs. The former happens in the shamanic state of consciousness.
An ASC is marked psychologically by an individual’s modified perceptual responses, processes of memory formation, cognitive skills, affective reactions, and personality structure relative to the basic or ordinary states of consciousness for that person. Integration in an ASC can occur because – based on set and setting (frame of mind and situation of the person, respectively) – an attenuation of the ordinary mode and its primary faculties permits the emergence of the integrative symbolic and cognitive processes normally repressed by ordinary consciousness. Orchestrated destructuralization, combined with patterning forces that redirect psychological functioning toward culturally desired patterns of experience, can lead to a stable, integrative ASC.
Some examples of ASCs recognized by Western culture are hypnotic trance, deep sleep, dreaming (REM) sleep, meditation, use of hallucinogenic substances, and periods of peak athletic performance. Some of these states may be spontaneously achieved, instigated by, for example, psychological trauma, sleep disturbance, sensory deprivation or overload, neurochemical imbalance, epileptic fits, and fever. Yet the also may be induced by purposeful activities such as breathing exercises; extreme deprivations (fasting, social isolation); self inflicted pain (flagellation); reductions or elevations in the level of sensory stimulation; rhythmic photic or sonic stimulation (drumming); and frenzied dancing, spinning, or chanting. Finally, they may be evoked by the use of psychoactive substances. Altered states of consciousness are frequently marked by vivid hallucinations and visions, the content of which is determined by the cultural background, set and setting.
During its history, humankind has devoted astonishing energy and ingenuity to altering consciousness. In a survey of 488 societies in all parts of the world, Erika Bourgignon found that 437 of the societies had one or more culturally patterned forms of ASC. This means that fully 90 percent of the world’s cultures have one or more institutionalized ASC. In tribal societies and Eastern cultures these are regarded – almost without exception – as sacred or revered conditions. Mystical or sacred states of consciousness are called samadhi in yoga, moksha in Hinduism, satori in Zen, fana in Sufism, and ruach hakodesh in kabalah. In the West they are known as unio mystica (Christian mysticism), a numinal state (Carl Jung), peak experience (Abraham Maslow), holotropic experience (Stanislav Grof), cosmic consciousness (Richard Bucke), and flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).
Western rational thinking marginalizes or even pathologizes ASCs: it considers them not only altered but deviant states, cannot differentiate between their disintegrative and integrative forms, and cultivates only the basic state of ordinary consciousness. Hence, the West has been stuck in one state of mind, not capitalizing on the potential of integrative ASCs. To put in ecological terms, Western civilization, with its institutionalized propensity to escape transcendence, is a monoculture, like a corn field with low levels of biodiversity, in contrast to the flowery pasture of other traditions. Cultural relativism prohibits comparing and judging the validity of cultural values. Nevertheless, evolution prefers diversity. The West is largely suspicious of ASCs, lacks institutional means to experience the sacred directly, and is left without an understanding of the integrative properties of transcendent ASCs. Techniques for inducing ASCs – typical in tribal cultures – gave way to mere symbolic rituals; direct experience is replaced by faith; and living ritual tradition of the past is fossilized into dogma. The West would benefit from reexamining a deeper level of spirituality, paying respect to higher structures, living in accord with other holons (a term favored by Ken Wilber for denoting systems embedded in joint hierarchies), and working to regain personal access to transcendental realms. This infusion of more traditional spirituality into the West has been called the Archaic Revival.
We have seen that the institutionalized procedures for altering consciousness is a near-universal characteristic of human culture. The majority of societies regard ASCs as equal to or of higher value than ordinary consciousness. This raises an intriguing dilemma: if there is more than one accepted form of consciousness, then the reality to which ASCs of the integrative type provide access is multiple, and we cannot discard any one as irrelevant or delusional. Here, we arrive at the incommensurability of realities. It is untenable to make statements from one form of consciousnes regarding the reality of another. Rationalists think about satori as a dreamlike state, while a Zen monk may say that it is the ordinary, rational people who live their lives in the dream world. Experiences of nonordinary reality are ineffable in ordinary consciousness. Judging or valuing one state of consciousness compared to another is logically prohibited. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Zen Buddhist would agree with him on this accord. Yet we continue to break the silence.”