Altered States

Posted on 23 August 2010

Consciousness is what separates mankind from most of the animal kingdom.  The consciousness of ourselves and the world around us shapes who we become as individuals, cultures, and societies.  What is referred to as the normative state of consciousness manifests the real world perceptions of most people who would be classified as sane (although one wonders if any two people share the exact same perception of reality).  So-called “higher” states of consciousness can be achieved through meditation, prayer, yoga, sensory deprivation, or the introduction of pharmaceutical agents.  Whether or not the “reality” manifested by such altered states is real or imagined is a matter of debate.

Early man learned how to alter his state of consciousness via activities like those mentioned above as well as consumption of various naturally-occurring substances, whether that consumption be by eating, smoking, or inhaling.  These substances, often found in the leaves of plants or bark of trees, were often used for medicinal as well as state-of-consciousness-altering purposes.  Many primitive cultures who have been studied and about whom we know a good deal have used such mind-altering substances as a part of their religious worship and ritual.  Amerindian cultures are known to have used the powerful hallucinogenic brew “Ayahuasca” from ingredients found in various species of Acacia trees and a bush “Peganum harmala.”  Such substances, which we would refer to as drugs, have been used by ancient civilization to establish contact with higher realms of spirituality and even the Divine.

It has long been speculated that older religions such a Hinduism and Zoroastrianism used drugs as part of their religious experience.  And it has been speculated that Judaism and even Christianity have a psychoactive component to their religious experiences.  In the March 2008 issue of “Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture,” Benny Shanon, a Professor of Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published “Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis” – an article theorizing that the ancient Israelite religion was partially based and associated with the use of mind-altering plants.

He suggests that perhaps Moses was “higher” than the altitude at which he found himself when he experienced God’s presence in the “burning bush” and on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments.  Indeed, he speculates that the Israelites as a people may all have been in a pharmacologically-altered state when Moses initially presented them with the sacred tablets.  Further, he proposes that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil at the heart of the Genesis narrative regarding Man’s fall from grace may have had psychoactive properties, opening the eyes of Adam and Eve to new “realities” when its fruit had been consumed.  In these and other sacred writings as well as in the plant life indigenous to that area, Shanon finds evidence that mind-altering plants may have had a significant impact on the development of belief systems that a large portion of the world’s population holds sacred.

The question of the impact of consciousness on reality remains.  Does an altered state of consciousness manifest a “higher” truth or a “false” one?  Can Man only achieve true spirituality or experience the Divine by altering his consciousness and, therefore, his reality?  Or, does the normative state of consciousness manifest the only “true” reality?  Is there any reality without consciousness?  Is reality fixed or is it relative?

These and a myriad of other questions defy definitive answers.  One thing, however, is true.  If you alter your state of consciousness, you will change your personal experience of “reality.”  Perhaps, that is all that really matters.

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