Today there is a proliferation of techniques that induce altered states of consciousness -- most stem from traditional sources, some combined with techniques from modern research. Meditation, yoga, tantra, drumming, chanting, ecstatic dance, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and chemicals among many others are widely available and much publicized. Often these practices are accompanied by psychophysical and "mystical" phenomena. Modern healing and psychotherapy are increasingly incorporating various traditional methods which involve these states and phenomena, gradually working toward a synthesis of ancient wisdom and modern science, both theoretically and practically. Books, tapes, researchers, and teachers hold forth the promise of achieving personal growth, health, happiness, and/or enlightenment through these means. What criteria can one use in evaluating and choosing among the many available techniques?
Clearly our ordinary waking awareness is only one aspect of consciousness and, when viewed as the only mode of existence, one that tends to limit us to a very narrow field of view. So-called altered or nonordinary states transcend this commonplace awareness -- not only of the physical realm but also of our mental landscape, the largely unexamined, often illusory interpretations of reality which we form from sense impressions. These states give access to realms ranging from almost physical to highly spiritual. But the fundamental questions are: what is human growth, and how do these experiences relate to it? Considering each person as a spiritual consciousness-center expressing itself through a psychological vehicle and a material form, human development means the purification and training of our intermediate nature so it can transmit undistorted the higher consciousness of the divine self. This process leads to spiritual, intellectual, and psychic growth. Through the ages, self-observation and meditation have been primary means leading to self-knowledge and control of the mind and emotions. Concentrating on outward forms of meditation practice, or on the powers and benefits that may result to ourselves by their use, tends to increase our self-centeredness. On the other hand, making a compassionate motive centered on the divine our focus, transforms our personal limitations naturally and builds links of sympathy with our fellow beings. By growing in compassionate concern we are developing the ability to let the divine within shine through the purified or clarified ordinary self and thus become available to all around us.
Many types of meditation exist in both West and East, but only recently have Occidentals in significant numbers begun to practice them. Pursuing concentration practices may lead to experiencing in some degree not only other states of consciousness but to phenomena such as visions, voices or sounds, stimulation of the chakras, out-of-body experiences, speaking in tongues, psi phenomena, trances, ecstasy, communication or merging with other beings, and feelings of union with spiritual reality. These may be the natural by-products of a particular stage of personal growth. More commonly, however, they are induced by stimulation of psychophysical triggers. Techniques such as specialized breathing, sensory deprivation, drumming, or chemicals produce temporary changes in consciousness and/or its content, but they do not necessarily reflect the true inner stature or spiritual condition of the individual. There is a marked contrast between such transitory manifestations and long-term inner development, as psychotherapist Stanislav Grof notes in connection with kundalini:
I have myself observed repeatedly in psychedelic sessions and various nondrug states manifestations that matched closely the descriptions of the arousal of Kundalini, opening of the chakras, and flow of the Kundalini energy through the main conduits, Ida and Pingala, and through the intricate network of the nadis, fine and ramified channels for pranic energy, as they have been described and depicted in Tantric texts.
However, it is important to emphasize that experiences of this kind -- Kundalini-like phenomena that would in traditional Indian literature be described as pranic -- have to be distinguished from true awakening of Kundalini. The latter is an involved process of profound significance and transformative power, the completion of which often requires years. In comparison with isolated pranic experiences, such an awakening of Kundalini occurs only very rarely as a result of psychedelic experiences or experiential psychotherapy and seems to be an independent phenomenon. (The Adventure of Self-Discoverry, 1988, pp. 113 -15. )
Certainly, experiencing altered states has been relatively common through recorded history, particularly in connection with the disciplines that mystics in all times and places have undergone in quest of the divine, truth, or reality. Concentrating the mind, becoming unattached psychologically to objects of the senses, penetrating beneath the superficial material aspects of themselves and the world, as well as special techniques belonging to various schools or traditions, result in phenomena which therefore have often been considered a sine qua non of the spiritual path and have become identified with spiritual progress. Mistaking the by-products of growth for that end itself is illustrated by a statement of R. Gordon Wasson:
The advantage of the mushroom is that it puts many, if not everyone, within reach of this state without having to suffer the mortifications of Blake and St. John [of Revelations]. It permits you to see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eyes can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life, to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say) to know God. --- The Road to Eleusis. Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, 1978, p. 19
This ease of access for ordinary people to other states of consciousness often surprises those researchers into shamanism who identify these phenomena with the mystic quest. Yet it is the very "mortifications," intelligently chosen and applied, which lead to permanent transformation of self, the real process of growth from the individual's starting point to a more universal one, not the visions and supersensory experiences that many mystics undergo on the way to their spiritual goal. The noble eightfold path of the Buddha, for example, which is his basic recommendation for spiritual growth and enlightenment, emphasizes a way of living, thinking, and contemplation to be practiced with discipline and with mindfulness of the inner goal and of compassion. Artificially induced states may be descriptively and phenomenologically indistinguishable from naturally occurring ones, but inner growth represents a way of life, not isolated experiences. (Cf Huston Smith's comments in "Psychology of Religious Experience," The Roots of Consciousness, 1988, Thinking Allowed videotape series.) It is the quality of an individual's life that is of real importance in human development.
Many great mystics and spiritual teachers, moreover, have held that manifestations, nonphysical "sense"-perceptions, and psychic powers are actually one of the greatest dangers and stumbling blocks along the path of spiritual development. Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, for instance, held that these phenomena, whether acting on the physical, mental, or spiritual organs of perception, distract the aspirant from his search for God and often engender spiritual pride and attachment. Such experiences can also be addictive, leading the searcher away from the spiritual and back to the phenomenal and egocentric. (See "Awakenment and Phenomena," Sarah B. Van Mater, Sunrise, Nov 1978, pp. 72-8.)
Phenomena may also unbalance and deceive the aspirant who takes his experiences at face value or uses their content as a guide. Generally experiences are the expression of one's own mind -- hallucinogenic drugs, for example, are recognized as being nonspecific catalysts that amplify the individual's consciousness rather than introduce new material -- and the ordinary person cannot tell whether they are coming from the spiritual or the limited mental/emotional or psychic parts of himself. There are, moreover, positive and negative forces in nature on every plane of existence, physical, psychic, mental, emotional, and spiritual. When transcending the physical plane, we generally enter the astral or psychic world -- a slightly more ethereal form of matter which contains influences and entities which range from the most degraded to the very lofty. This so-called astral light is the medium for transmitting forces between more ethereal planes and the physical world, as well as being in its lower reaches the region where people's concreted lower psychological energies (kama-rupas, "shades," or "spirits") remain to disintegrate after death. It also contains the impress of all the thoughts, feelings, and actions of humankind since the dawn of time, as well as, it is said, all that is and will be. These akasic "records," analogous to the morphic fields of Rupert Sheldrake, exist in this more tenuous atmosphere which penetrates every portion of the earth and of the individual lives composing it. These impressions are drawn to individuals by affinity and similarity of vibration: all of our thoughts and feelings come to us through this medium, and are thrown back into it again after they are used.
Unless highly trained, those in altered states of consciousness are not accustomed to functioning self-consciously in the astral sphere of reality, and are even more likely to be deceived by appearances and become confused there than on the physical plane, where confusion and lack of control are common enough. Phenomena may come either from God or from the Devil, to use Christian parlance, and it is impossible at times for even the most sincere recipient to distinguish the one from the other. They may even be entirely imaginary or self-induced, as St. John of the Cross points out regarding interior voices:
I am appalled at what happens in these days -- namely, when some soul with the very smallest experience of meditation, if it be conscious of certain locutions of this kind in some state of recollection, at once christens them all as coming from God, and assumes that this is the case, saying: "God said to me . . ."; "God answered me . . ."; whereas it is not so at all, but, as we have said, it is for the most part they who are saying these things to themselves.
And, over and above this, the desire which people have for locutions, and the pleasure which comes to their spirits from them, lead them to make answer to themselves and then to think that it is God Who is answering them and speaking to them. -- Ascent of Mount Carmel, E. Allison Peers, Bk 2, ch. 29, sec. 4-5
There is also danger to the unprepared and unguided in opening an inner link to these realms of being, as the conduit may be difficult to close off if undesirable phenomena impinge on the person. Only those who have completely mastered similar aspects of themselves can control and judge correctly these nonphysical forces.
Spiritual literature emphasizes the need for guidance along the path of spiritual development, and the dangers of ignorantly using forces both within and outside ourselves. The surest means to health and happiness is to live in harmony with the whole of nature and with the higher reaches of ourselves, which translates practically into character-building, universalizing our thoughts and feelings, and most importantly into making love for all beings the cornerstone of our everyday life. In past ages those searching for spiritual growth turned to those institutions and teachers recognized as sources of spiritual enlightenment.
Altered states of consciousness traditionally have been associated not only with individual spiritual striving, but with institutions as well. For millennia there have been centers of spiritual learning all over the globe, sometimes called Mysteries or Mystery schools. Said to have been founded several million years ago by divine beings in conjunction with the most spiritually advanced of mankind, these schools have served several functions: to preserve the wisdom of the gods even during material and self-centered eras; to benefit humanity as a whole by providing a source of spiritual and intellectual light and a link with the spiritual forces of the planet and cosmos; and to help those whose inner strivings, aspirations, and self-transformation allow their personal evolution to be quickened by training and systematic methods. (See G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, vol. 2; Grace F. Knoche, The Mystery Schools; and "A Great Light, A Force for Good," W. T. S. Thackara, Sunrise, Nov 1978, pp. 62-71.)
Because of the secrecy surrounding these Mystery schools, we know very little about their teachings and methods. Those that we do know of flourished in rather recent historic times, and by then these publicly known centers had become secularized and degenerate. Doubtless many different means were used to stimulate spiritual unfoldment, including many of the methods increasingly used and misused today.
The theme of the Mysteries was the second birth -- the birth of the spiritual person, which is also the goal of individual inner development. In the historic Mysteries of Greece, Egypt, India, and Central America, for example, the use of hallucinogenic plants in producing such "initiatory" experiences is well documented. Some scholars have argued that the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis near Athens involved the use of such a substance in the wine drunk before the culminating ceremony since the descriptions include "the symptomatic reactions not to a drama or ceremony, but to a mystical vision; and since the sight could be offered to thousands of initiates each year dependably upon schedule, it seems obvious that an hallucinogen must have induced it. (Carl A. P. Ruck in The Road to Eleusis. Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, 1978, p. 37.) This use of sacred plants parallels the use of soma in Brahmanical rites, of khat among the Egyptians, and of peyote, mushrooms, and other substances in the Americas. Even in
the Masonic Lodges of old times the neophyte was subjected to a series of frightful tests of his constancy, courage and presence of mind. By psychological impressions supplemented by machinery and chemicals, he was made to believe himself falling down precipices, crushed by rocks, walking spider-web bridges in mid-air, passing through fire. . . . This was a reminiscence of and a programme borrowed from the Egyptian Mysteries. The West having lost the secrets of the East, had, as I say, to resort to artifice. But in these days the vulgarization of science has rendered such trifling tests obsolete. The aspirant is now assailed entirely on the psychological side of his nature. -- The Mahatma Letters to A. P Sinnett, comp. A. Trevor Barker, 2nd ed., p. 365.
Profound as such experiences were to participants, the ancient Mysteries we know of had become assimilated into established exoteric religions or cults, which by their very nature tend to be inimical to the individual mystical quest and its knowledge. In The Secret Doctrine (2:498-9 & n), H. P. Blavatsky throws light on this relationship, using the Hindu tradition as an example:
Soma is the moon astronomically; but in mystical phraseology, it is also the name of the sacred beverage drunk by the Brahmins and the Initiates during their mysteries and sacrificial rites. The "Soma" plant is the asclepias acida, which yields a juice from which that mystic beverage, the Soma drink, is made. Alone the descendants of the Rishis, the Agnihotri (the fire priests) of the great mysteries knew all its powers. But the real property of the true Soma was (and is) to make a new man of the Initiate, after he is reborn, namely once that he begins to live in his astral body . . . ; for, his spiritual nature overcoming the physical, he would soon snap it off and part even from that etherealized form.*
Soma was never given in days of old to the non-initiated Brahman the simple Grihasta, or priest of the exoteric ritual. Thus Brihaspati "guru of the gods" though he was -- still represented the dead-letter form of worship. It is Tara his wife -- the symbol of one who, though wedded to dogmatic worship, longs for true wisdom -- who is shown as initiated into his mysteries by King Soma, the giver of that Wisdom. Soma is thus made in the allegory to carry her away. The result of this is the birth, of Budha -- esoteric Wisdom -- (Mercury, or Hermes in Greece and Egypt). He is represented as "so beautiful" that even the husband, though well aware that Budha is not the progeny of his dead-letter worship -- claims the "new-born" as his Son, the fruit of his ritualistic and meaningless forms.
*The partaker of Soma finds himself both linked to his external body, and yet away from it in his spiritual form. The latter, freed from the former, soars for the time being in the ethereal higher regions, becoming virtually "as one of the gods," and yet preserving in his physical brain the memory of what he sees and learns. Plainly speaking, Soma is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge forbidden by the jealous Elohim to Adam and Eve or Yah-ve, "lest Man should become as one of us." -- HPB
Thus exoteric religions absorbed the results of mystical experience, although fundamentally out of sympathy with the individualistic and nonauthoritarian means and ends. Walter Houston Clark has compared mainstream religion to a vaccination, where people attending church get a small dose that protects them against "the real thing." Again, Jung felt that the main function of formalized religion is "to protect people against the direct experience of God." (cf. Stanislav Grof, The Adventures of Self-Discovery, p. 269.)
Typically the exoteric Mysteries were open to a wide range of people within a particular social group or tribe. In the case of the Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, anyone who spoke Greek, had not committed murder or certain other crimes, had the funds to pay for the ritual sacrifice, and could stay in Athens for six months, could undergo the Mysteries. Many members of tribal communities commonly undergo a mystical or initiatory experience associated with coming of age or with membership in various tribal groups. Thus these exoteric rites do not depend on the individual's fitness or inner standing.
These public Mysteries, though shrouded in vows of secrecy, were not the inner or esoteric Mysteries, which might or might not be connected with an exoteric site. The inner Mysteries were the training ground of the few who wished to consecrate their life and efforts to spiritual development, and had the dedication and ability to do so. Here the emphasis was on becoming rather than on a particular visionary experience, altered states, or communication of intellectual knowledge, though altered states, phenomena, and knowledge were no doubt also involved. But it was the quality of the individual and his or her ability to conquer or transcend the limited aspects of himself or herself that was the determining factor. These inner Mysteries have never disappeared, and are said to still function actively, though unknown, all over the globe. They are found by individuals whose evolutionary development and aspiration bring them into sympathetic inner, and perhaps outer, contact with those forming this ancient spiritual network.
The emphasis on inner growth and on living the selfless life is one factor that separates many of the shamanic and tantric practitioners from those of the mystic traditions. The former are generally concerned with serving as an intermediary between their community and the inner worlds, and they often do not place a high priority on themselves living a selfless life of loving kindness or personal altruism. They are concerned with healing, solving people's specific problems, and other practical affairs which their access to and power over nonphysical worlds facilitate. It is to these people that the healing and psychotherapeutic communities are turning increasingly, using them as role models and sources for techniques, particularly as in their own communities shamans correspond in many ways to health professionals. However useful, these methods in themselves should not be confused with means to spiritual growth or inner development. They are an expansion of worldly concerns into other realms of being, such as the astral, which have been ignored until recently in the modern Occident.
Unquestionably the methods offered ever more widely today produce results, often dramatic, both physically and psychologically. For several centuries the West has been self-limited to the physical world and to materialistic theories of psychology, medicine, and human consciousness and existence. The assimilation of the broader range of techniques and knowledge of Oriental and traditional peoples is acting as a leaven on Occidental disciplines. Certainly Western methods of healing need to focus on the whole person and his interrelationship with nature in its entirety, including all levels of existence. Just as in the ancient Mysteries, the heart of human evolution remains the death/transcendence of the ordinary self or ego in order to allow the birth or rebirth of the spiritual person within. People in the West have largely ignored this experience, and until recently those spontaneously undergoing it did not speak of it -- it is still often stigmatized as mental illness or abnormality (complicating matters is the fact that those experiencing altered states often do become unbalanced and manifest psychoses along with or instead of various "spiritual" states). These experiences of rebirth are coming forward again with the publicizing of near-death experiences and with new, broader theories and techniques of psychotherapy, which show the pervasiveness of death-rebirth experiences as a component of the human psyche and their importance to the psychological health of the individual:
Deep experiential encounter with birth and death is typically associated with an existential crisis of extraordinary proportions during which the individual seriously questions the meaning of his or her life and existence in general. This crisis can be successfully resolved only by connecting with the intrinsic spiritual dimensions of the psyche and deep resources of the collective unconscious. The resulting personality transformation and consciousness evolution can be compared to the changes described in the context of ancient death-rebirth mysteries, initiation to secret societies, and various aboriginal rites of passage. -- Grof, Adventure, p. 10
At the same time there is danger in adopting wholesale and on an experimental basis these very powerful techniques, some of which contain degenerate elements in their native setting. In the words of a Tibetan proverb, only a spider's web separates white magic from black. The same training, techniques, and abilities are used in both cases, the only differences being the motive, uses, and results of development. Due to centuries of ignorance of inner forces and planes of existence, Westerners lack understanding of the laws governing the inner aspects of nature and man, and so are not apt to evaluate accurately the consequences of their actions in these realms. Nonphysical forces are much more powerful than the corresponding physical ones, and we may precipitate a psychological and astral "ecological" disaster similar to the physical one induced by our ignorant use and manipulation of the physical environment.
The danger exists to the individual as well as to society and humanity as a whole. The uninformed use of consciousness-altering methods can have a very adverse effect on the circulation of energies through the human constitution and result in unhealthy physical or psychological states. The poor physical (and sometimes psychological) condition of many mystics, particularly in the West where they were often working without competent spiritual guidance, is a case in point. Taking techniques from tribal or Oriental cultures where users often have the traditional background to understand what they are doing as an integral part of life, and moving them piecemeal into Western culture, may produce quite unexpected results. The challenge will be to form a synthesis that is benign in its effects and side-effects. Whether this can be achieved through widespread, popularized personal experimentation is moot.
Moreover, the secularizing and vulgarization of spiritual techniques historically has resulted in abuses and misuse of the knowledge and methods. This prostitution of the sacred is most obvious perhaps in the case of sacred substances once used in strictly controlled religious rites where
ingestion of the sacred material was designed not merely to give "a high" but to trigger and impel the metamorphic process leading to a theurgic transmutation of human nature into apotheosis, in which the previously merely mortal is to be, using Meister Eckhart's graphic word, vergottet, i.e. "begodded." But that process, overseen by cosmic regents, the living archetypes of stellar powers, had to be resonantly timed with those powers. -- Charles Musès, "The Sacred Plant of Ancient Egypt," Gateway to Inner Space, p. 148.
When moved beyond the sanctuary these substances tend to become recreational drugs, in some cases their status as mind-altering substances almost forgotten, let alone their standing as "sacred" plants, particularly if they have been imported from an alien culture, as in the case of tobacco, coffee, and tea. Even in ancient Greece abuse of the substance used in the Eleusinian Mysteries took place as "a notorious scandal was uncovered in the classical age, when it was discovered that numerous aristocratic Athenians had begun celebrating the Mystery at home with groups of drunken guests at dinner parties." (Ruck in The Road to Eleusis, p. 37.) In our times many once "sacred" substances have become consumer products, legal or illegal, divorced from any connection with human spirituality. Yet modern researches have found that motive, preparation, and expectation are crucial to the effect of many such substances.
What is the appropriate role of various techniques? Each person has to decide what is appropriate for him or her; no one can dictate or decide for another. But the central point is: what do we want, and how can it best be achieved? Many researchers in the field are looking for ways to enhance existing disciplines -- particularly in healing and psychotherapy; the bottom line for many is "does it work?" not whether the motive or even the ultimate result is worthy. Spiritual growth is a matter of inner discipline and development, which may or may not result in phenomenal signs or dramatic alterations in our state of consciousness. The use of techniques to discipline and purify the mind, to become more universal in one's feelings and thoughts, to keep the divine in consciousness, to focus awareness in the present moment, all have great value, physically and psychologically as well as spiritually. Yet without proper guidance and motive some techniques can be very hazardous.
The most powerful purifying influence is to live for others, making altruism the basis of life. Hand in hand with this goes finding one's own dharma -- both the overall reason for one's existence and the most immediate duty at any given moment. Performing one's dharma can become a continuous meditation. Our growth as human beings ultimately depends on the unspectacular accomplishment of the tasks of daily life, on controlling and improving our character, and on our relationships with others. Various states of consciousness will appear naturally in time.
It is easy to become caught up in the glamour and drama of altered states both as an end in themselves and a means to personal powers or success, material or spiritual. If we can realize that attaining these states in and of itself is not an emblem of inner growth and progress -- that the path to becoming truly human, and ultimately godlike, is that of compassion, of centering our consciousness in the more universal aspects of ourselves while making the everyday ego our servant instead of our master -- then the entry of these traditional techniques into modem Western life may herald a return to the more spiritual and global atmosphere of the true inner Mysteries, those centers of spiritual love and human concern that influenced so beneficially the civilizations of ancient times and continue to challenge and encourage true seekers of spiritual reality.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July, August/September 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)
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