In the past couple of months, altered states have been piquing my interest. Maybe it is because consensus reality seems to have shifted and I find myself wondering which movie I’ve suddenly dropped into, or maybe it's just that more and more people are now starting to take a serious look at this aspect of being human.
People like Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, for example. I’ve just finished their new book, “Stealing Fire” which explores this territory. Altered states, or getting ‘high’ turns out to be a pretty ubiquitous urge in people and in animals. We normally think of an altered state as the mind state that is induced by psychoactive drugs; literally playing with our brain chemistry. But the type of brain activity that correlates with being high on MDMA doesn’t just happen when people take drugs. Meditation and other spiritual practices can shift the brain in a similar way, as can sexuality. Intense athletic endeavors and risk sports (the familiar ‘flow’ state), pointed concentration, and creativity also induce altered states — all in varying degrees of intensity and character. Falling in love, one of my personal favorites, is certainly a major altered state.
Altered states are everywhere.
As I have been noticing this theme arise in my life around me, I am seeing just how much humans crave altered states. We all have our own ways of altering our head space — different ways of getting that feeling of timelessness, losing our sense of the small self, experiencing effortless in our actions, or intensifying our embodied, sensual intake — in barely-perceptable to mind-blowing doses. Kotler and Wheal cite study after study that seem to support the idea that seeking altered states is the ‘fourth drive’ in higher organisms — after water, food, and sex.
But how we use these altered states can have radically different results. We can move toward enlightenment, or we can end up dying in a gutter somewhere.
I certainly crave altered states. I am crazy for the experience of feeling connected to some mysterious thing that is way bigger than I am. I have done the psychoactive drug thing, in both social and sacred settings. I have experienced the flow state in climbing. I have been suspended in altered states in meditation — especially in group retreat settings— and I definitely find a state shift occurs when engaged in creative activity, something I’ve spent most of my life doing. In fact, at this very moment as I write, I can feel that telltale humming feeling in my brain that feels sooooo good . . .
As I mature, I become more aware of why I seek these experiences . . . and this book confirms my suspicions. It appears that consistent experience of altered states (if undertaken with awareness, intention, and self-responsibility) result in altered traits — stable ways of being that do not go away. Indeed, I seek to alter my consciousness in order to evolve; to attempt to max out my own potential and so be an ever more potent force for change in the world. This urge doesn't come from my personality, my ego self (though that little self has hitched a ride often enough, which can end up numbing me instead of waking me up). This urge comes from somewhere very deep, and it is the defining purpose of my life. There is nothing more exciting to me than to evolve toward being human in this way: to be ever more wise, embodied, flexible, authentic, intuitive, peaceful, compassionate, powerful, capable — to defy my own expectations.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not alone in this desire, am I right?
The altered state that I have found to be most wholesome, most satisfying, most healthy for my body and that has the most long-lasting implications for influencing my everyday life comes in the time I spend in wild nature doing medicine walks and vision fast-type trips, either for myself or guiding others. This ancient, nature-based way of altering consciousness is so mysteriously effective and is so far-reaching, that I have chosen to make it my life’s work; to offer my version of it to the world as yet another path that can satisfy our “forth drive” as we make our way toward becoming a more enlightened species.
What is your preferred way of altering your state of consciousness? Can you continue to explore ways that clearly move you toward healthy, powerful and stable altered traits? Give yourself permission. It may matter way more than you know.