What is an Altered State of Consciousness?

Consciousness — POSTED BY Dr. Ralph Metzner on January 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Brainwaving proudly present the first in a series of articles by Ralph Metzner Ph.D., an American psychologist, writer and researcher, who participated in psychedelic research at Harvard University in the early 1960s with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later named Ram Dass). Dr. Metzner is a psychotherapist, and Professor Emeritus of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he was formerly the Academic Dean and Academic Vice-president.

Dr. Metzner has been involved in consciousness research, including psychedelics, Yoga, meditation and Shamanism for over 45 years. He is a co-founder and President of the Green Earth Foundation, a non-profit educational organization devoted to healing and harmonizing the relationship between humans and the Earth, and a signatory to the 9/11 Truth Statement. Dr. Metzner was featured in the 2006 film and Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within, a documentary about rediscovering an enchanted cosmos in the modern world.

The concept of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) came into  prominence in Western psychology in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily due to three paradigm breakthroughs. One was the discovery of rapid eye movements (REM) during  dreaming sleep, which was the first time  recordable physiological variations could be reliably correlated with a specific subjective state of consciousness. The second breakthrough was the discovery that  eletroencephalograph (EEG) recordings of electrical activity in the brain, in the range of 8-12 cycles per second  (called “alpha waves”) were reliably correlated with calm,  eyes-closed meditative states.  The third breakthrough was the discovery of LSD and other psychedelic, “consciousness expanding” drugs, – which meant that profoundly transformed states of consciousness, hitherto accessible only to a few individuals engaged in meditative or yogic practices, could be induced with fairly high reliability in ordinary people, given the right preparation, safeguards, set and setting.

Tim Leary used to say psychedelic drugs were potentially to psychology what the microscope was to biology – affording the perception of ranges and levels of reality that were  previously  inaccessible

These discoveries of correlations between variations in neural functions and variations in subjective consciousness stimulated an enormous upsurge of research, which continues to this day, using technologies such EEG, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), PET (Photon Emission tomography), CT and others.  This approach – the study of associations between measures of brain activity and mental states – has become the dominant paradigm in the scientific study of consciousness.  It is based on the underlying philosophical assumption of the Western, materialist worldview that consciousness must somehow be “located” in the brain. This is a view that goes back to the work of the 18th century French mathematician  René Descartes, who famously speculated that the soul might be found in the pineal gland.  The Eastern philosophies of Yoga and  Buddhism come from a completely different approach, basing their conceptions of the mind on systematic observations of inner states during meditation. In recent years integrative formulations have appeared, that posit an integrated cosmic field of consciousness underlying all reality at every level.

A state of consciousness can best be understood as a period of time between two transition points, during which our consciousness (thoughts, feelings, motivations, sensations, etc) function in characteristic ways. Thus, we’re in the sleeping state between falling asleep and waking up; in the ordinary waking between waking up and falling asleep. A state of drug or alcohol intoxication begins with the ingestion of the drug and ends when the effect wears off.  A meditative state or a hypnotic trance state begins and ends with  transitions we refer to as “going in” or “coming out,”  as if crossing a kind of threshold.  It is important to recognize that our minds operate according to quite different principles of time and space in different states.  For example, we may have a dream encounter with a beloved grandmother who lives thousands of miles away in the time-space dimension, – but it takes no time to travel to this meeting. Distance and closeness in this dream state is not geographical but emotional, a function of affinity and interest.

Sigmund Freud said that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious,” meaning they provide the broadest and widest access.  But one could equally well say that dreams are the commoners’ road, for everyone can and does travel on that nightly passage into the realms beyond.

The key insight that came out of the Harvard studies with psychedelic drugs was the significance of set (intention) and setting (context).  Unlike drugs that affect the functioning of one or another bodily organ, such as heart or kidney, psychedelics expand the range, focus and clarity of perception itself – the way we see reality and ourselves. Their effect goes far beyond even the mood-elevating or anxiety-calming effects of stimulant or sedative drugs.  Tim Leary used to say psychedelic drugs were potentially to psychology what the microscope was to biology – affording the perception of ranges and levels of reality that were  previously  inaccessible.  But just as what we perceive through a microscope is a function of what we have put on the slide (perhaps a leaf of a plant, or a drop of blood), so the content of a psychedelic experience (the thoughts, images, feelings, sensations)  is a function of the pre-existing set or intention, and the chosen context or setting. The drug merely functions as a kind of catalyst or trigger that shifts mental functioning into a different mode.

In the courses on altered states of consciousness that I taught for many years, I found it useful to expand this basic  paradigm of set, setting and catalyst to any and all states of consciousness, from the most common to the most exotic.  Well-known catalysts or triggers of ASCs  are drugs, hypnotic inductions, meditative practices, shamanic drumming, music, nature, sex, and others, as well as the normal cyclical variations of brain chemistry that catalyze us into the sleeping or  waking states. It’s also extremely useful to apply the ASC paradigm to understand psychopathological states that are contractive, fixated or dissociative, and have negative and toxic consequences for individuals, families and communities  – including drug or behavioral addictions, fear (panic attacks),  rage (fits of temper), psychotic breaks or episodes, depression, mania and others.

Should “dreaming” be considered a “non-ordinary state”?  How about  being “drunk” or “depressed” – aren’t those rather ordinary states? Furthermore,  some indigenous people and shamanic practitioners objected that what  Westerners called “non-ordinary” states or realities, were to them very familiar and ordinary.

One issue that  produces uneasiness in most people when  considering or discussing the concept of  an “altered state”, is the seeming implication that “altered” is itself abnormal. How then could we talk about ASCs being therapeutic, creative,  or spiritual growth enhancing?   In my courses, I’ve attempted to overcome this cognitive prejudice by pointing to the fact that all human beings are extremely familiar with the normal, life-long, profoundly altered variations in state we call sleeping, waking and dreaming.  Sigmund Freud said that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious,” meaning they provide the broadest and widest access.  But one could equally well say that dreams are the commoners’ road, for everyone can and does travel on that nightly passage into the realms beyond.  In India the “royal path of yoga” (raja yoga) referred to the use of psychological practices to liberate consciousness from its ordinary conditioning – and this path does require a certain disciplined study and application.

Whether the state is normal or abnormal is, in any case, a culturally and historically relative judgment imposed on experience, and thus, an academic question of no particular significance.

Some writers have attempted to overcome the negative presuppositions associated with “altered states”, by proposing terms such as “alternate state”, or “non-ordinary state”, or (as in a recently published handbook of the American Psychological Association) “anomalous experiences”.  But this linguistic strategy disguises the point that some alterations of state are extremely ordinary, usual and familiar.  Should “dreaming” be considered a “non-ordinary state”?  How about  being “drunk” or “depressed” – aren’t those rather ordinary states? Furthermore,  some indigenous people and shamanic practitioners objected that what  Westerners called “non-ordinary” states or realities, were to them very familiar and ordinary.  There is a whole spectrum of states of consciousness, from the familiar and common to the anomalous and exotic extreme, and this is true for both positive, expansive, health and knowledge enhancing states, as well as negative, contractive, unhealthy and destructive states. Whether the state is normal or abnormal is, in any case, a culturally and historically relative judgment imposed on experience, and thus, an academic question of no particular significance.

I finally came to understand my own lingering discomfort with the concept of “altered state”,  besides the fact that it disguises the distinction between ordinary and non-ordinary states.  It has to do with the passive construction “altered”, which suggests that something was done to you by an external agency.  A drug-induced state seemingly supports this view.  But we have to remember that  normally the individual chooses to ingest the drug, whether alcohol or LSD or marijuana,  for a certain purpose,  and with the intention to alter their consciousness. Similarly, a person may choose to undergo a hypnotic induction procedure to enter into a trance state in the context of psychotherapy. To deliberately alter another person’s consciousness without their knowledge or consent, for example by surreptitious use of a drug or alcohol, is universally considered morally reprehensible and illegal.

In Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, such as those of Gurdjieff,  what we consider our normal waking state is seen as a kind of sleep state,  in which we are unconscious of our essential nature, and the purpose of yogic practices is to help us “awaken from the dream of reality.”

The state transitions of everyday life are also conceived in active or passive terms. We may “go to sleep” with  the conscious intention toward rest and restoration of energies, we may “fall asleep” involuntarily due to fatigue, or we may be “put to sleep” metaphorically by a boring speaker in a lecture hall.  Likewise for the opposite transition:  we may “be awakened” by the alarm clock,  just “wake up” spontaneously, or struggle, literally and metaphorically, against the downward pull of  somnolence to become fully conscious and alert.  In Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, such as those of Gurdjieff,  what we consider our normal waking state is seen as a kind of sleep state,  in which we are unconscious of our essential nature, and the purpose of yogic practices is to help us “awaken from the dream of reality.”

Our purpose is  to become more  conscious  and to awaken to our highest potentials.  In order to use our expansive, positive states constructively for increasing health, creativity and growth,  we need to be able to recognize the state of consciousness we’re in, and how to navigate through it.  For example, in shamanic or alchemical divination practices we learn to use the shamanic drumming journey state for the purposes of obtaining knowledge for healing, problem solving and guidance. Yogis and meditators  practice mindfulness and centering in order to navigate the subtle realms of consciousness.

With negative, contractive and unhealthy states, heightening or expanding consciousness becomes our main concern, for ourselves and for others with whom we may be relating. We want to identify the state we’re in, recognize how it’s affecting us (our thinking, our perception, our behavior), and how we can navigate our way through it and beyond it into healthier, life-affirming states.  By becoming more conscious or mindful of the state we’re in at any given moment, we can deploy attention in different ways, and thus enhance the range of choices we can make, and more fully take responsibility for the impact of those choices on others and in our world.

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