Psychology Spirituality

Altered States

There’s a deep human need to experience altered states of consciousness. What are the benefits and dangers and how does it fit within our culture?

There’s been a lot of articles published recently about the astonishing results people are getting using psychadelics to treat difficult psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety/depression around end of life/terminal illness. The mind-altering substances being used for these studies are mostly psyllocibin (as found in “magic mushrooms”), MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD. A recent book exploring this is by Michael Pollan: How to Change Your Mind.

The healers of traditional cultures (what Western anthropologists came to call ‘shamans’) have long known about the benefits of specific altered states of consciousness for healing and for gaining special knowledge and insights. Still today, many shamans routinely enter such states, and help others to enter these states, as part of their healing work. Some shamans use natural psychoactive ‘plant medicine’ for this, but many others use methods which don’t involve ingesting anything.

Different ways to enter altered states

There are many ways to enter into altered states of consciousness. When I did some training with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies we were taught to use drumming to enter the ‘shamanic state of consciousness’. The hypnotic steady beat of the ‘medicine’ drum at the right frequency entrains the brain into a theta brainwave state – a state usually associated with sleep or deep meditation. Some recent research suggests that the theta state may help the brain processing some kinds of non propositional knowledge – ie the more embodied knowledge we can’t learn in books or as information (such as riding a bike). In this ‘shamanic state’ the experience can be like a journey which may involve flying – the origins of terms like ‘getting high’ or ‘taking a trip’ or ‘tripping’.

Another way of entering an altered state is through particular controlled breathing techniques. Stanislav Grof was one of the leading psychiatrists researching LSD for healing back in the 1960s. When LSD was banned he and his wife Christine developed Holotropic Breathwork as an alternative. Grof was friends with Michael Harner, the anthropologist-turned-shaman who started the Foundation for Shamanic Studies as a way to bring the insights of core shamanism to Western culture. My sense from reading and personal experience is that there is much in common between these two approaches.

There are also parallels with some forms of meditation, including meditation that is enhanced by binaural technologies (such as binaural beats, Hemi-Sync and Holosync). There are further parallels with a psycho-therapeutic technique developed by Carl Jung called Active Imagination where we enter a deeply relaxed state on the border between sleep and wakefulness, and in that state we take a dream or an image that has some potency for us and allow it to play out or unfold driven by the unconscious and observed by the conscious mind.

Personally I’ve never taken psychadelics but I have spoken to people who have experienced both ‘plant medicine’ and drumming journeys, and they report that essentially there is no difference. The differences are that some people may, for various reasons, have trouble dropping into a deep drum journey whereas the psychadelics take you straight there. Once you are in a drumming journey it is possible to snap right out of that state if needed, or if something disturbing is experienced. With a psychadelic experience that isn’t possible. In other words, the conscious mind is a bit more present in the drumming journey than in the psychadelic journey.

What happens in altered states?

What is happening in the mind in these altered states? The evidence suggests different parts of the brain that don’t usually communicate suddenly start talking to each other, particularly across the two hemispheres of the brain. The effect is that our default ways of seeing and understanding gets shaken up. There’s a loosening of previously rigid beliefs, assumptions and thought-forms. There’s an opening of possibilities, of different perspectives, a seeing of patterns and things that were previously unseen. This can be confronting or liberating. It can be life-changing in the sense that these new perspectives persist even after the altered state has worn off. It can also be a source of great creativity as we metaphorically ‘step outside the box’.

There seems to be a need for humans to experience altered states, and shamanism has been practiced for tens of thousands of years. Modern Western culture may be the first in human history that doesn’t put a cultural value on these states – to the point of making psychadelics illegal and (until recently) banning research on their therapeutic benefits.

Altered states in traditional cultures

People in pre-modern and traditional cultures would routinely experience various altered states of consciousness through participation in ceremony and rituals. Also there would be a cultural openness to the experience of non-ordinary reality breaking through in various form (e.g. signs in nature, dreams, people hearing voices in their heads) and a general belief in a ‘spirit world’ that can communicate with this world. I think that one of the tragedies of many contemporary religious communities is that most people don’t experience life-changing altered states of consciousness when they go to church or mosque or temple. Instead, what is offered is teaching: the insights passed second and third hand from the religious founders who did directly experience the spirit world.

In the spiritual desert that is the modern world, people’s hunger to experience these altered states finds expression in many different ways. This includes taking drugs, various ‘alternative’ spiritual communities and practices, and experiencing certain types of music such as psy-trance music, (where the hypnotic beat of the music may have the same effect as the shaman’s drum) and chanting. Gregorian chant is an ancient Christian music form which creates an altered state. Kirtan is a meditative repetitive chant form from India. Taizé chants are a modern Christian revival of this music form with a lot of similarities to Kirtan. One of my personal recent favourite musical discoveries which takes me into a deep state is RyX.

The risks

Not all altered states are beneficial. Alcohol, while doing some loosening also depresses the brain’s ability to process and make new connections. This makes it the ideal drug for avoiding processing or dealing with painful stuff. But any experience which alters our consciousness can be used as an avoidance. And while avoidance can feel good in the short term, it is a harmful long-term strategy. Alcoholics find they need to consume more and more alcohol to achieve the numbing they seek, and the same can be true of any addictive pattern or substance of avoidance.

Another real danger of altered states is when someone has a lot of unprocessed trauma and their psyche has built strong walls around that trauma in order for them to function. In these cases a sudden and radical loosening of the rigid structures of the psyche could be overwhelming and re-traumatising.

Or in another language, the shaman might say that the spirit world is a place with dangers, just as this world has dangers (from venemous snakes and spiders to predatory humans) and we need to be respectful, exercise caution, and tread carefully. This is not a place/state to enter carelessly and without intention. When we lower our psychic walls there is a risk that unhelpful psychic entities/thought-forms can intrude. On the other hand, by loosening our rigid defences and belief patterns there is a chance for real and deep healing, processing of trauma, and profound and lasting growth.

The shamanic perspective is that when we journey (get high/go on a trip) is wise to have a guide who can protect us. This might be a guide from the spirit world who we have come to know and trust, or it might be the shaman herself.

In the modern re-discovery of psychadelics for therapy, there is a similar mindfulness of treading carefully, having an experienced therapist accompanying the ‘patient’ and building a safe container/environment for this work.

On a broader scale, the conscious and mindful rediscovery of working with altered states may be an essential tool as we transition from a dying and dysfunctional culture into something more human and life-enhancing. We literally may need to use altered states to alter ‘The State’.

If anyone is interested in exploring this field in a very safe way, I offer drumming journeys for individuals and groups. There are also various drumming journeys that can be downloaded for people to experiment with using headphones. Compared to psychadelics, it’s a very gentle and safe way to start exploring altered states and their amazing benefits.