Can Altered States Save The World?
Altered states may not the kind of thing you generally read about (or want to). You’ve possibly made a judgement already? That the author of this post is a bit of a latent hippy, or had a hedonistic past? It’s just not business-like, is it?
I do understand. But I want to at least try to change the way you consider the term ‘altered state’ and this article sets out to explain why. There’s a good reason for this, because believe me when I say, altered states are big business. And they’re about to get bigger. If you aren’t on board, there’s a chance you may get left behind.
What does it mean exactly?
Be honest, what immediately comes to mind when you think of the term ‘altered state’? I’d love to know. My experience is that the mention of it tends to split the recipients into several groups. Some people grin and think of their hedonistic days of mind-bending parties and social drugs and still possess a bit of that ‘bring it on’ sensation that arises at the thought of an altered state (otherwise known as ‘getting off your face’). Then there’s another group who shake their heads in disgust– a hangover judgment from the Victorian era, perhaps? Or maybe it’s in the genes, our DNA. Long-held beliefs and ingrained cultural misnomers delivered to us by the church who, back in the day, preached that pastimes such as dancing were the work of the devil (aka Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing) and that we’d all go to hell for our sinful thoughts and actions (whist carrying out their own crimes behind closed doors — but that’s another topic altogether). Then there’s a third group. The group who have always understood the sheer power of an altered state. They’re the ones who, up until now, have been quietly exploring the vast possibilities of the human mind and beyond. This group was historically made up of the likes of artists, monks, mystics, shamans and indigenous tribes. But that is changing.
Middle Class Awakening?
Now, groups of middle-classed professionals gather together, in places such as Twickenham, to spend anything from a few hours (see Bufo link below), to an entire weekend (see Ibago link below) to take plant medicines which alter their states. Ayahuasca is the most commonly known, written about in the mainstream press and used, but people in the West are beginning to get more experimental. Some plant medicines are hugely powerful and take people through state cycles of a form of ‘death’ and then ‘re-birth’ in order to clear unresolved issues that are holding them back or making them ill. Others are a little ‘gentler’ and over and done within a few hours, such as Bufo. Kambo was even discussed recently on ABC News in terms of its health benefits.
Our biggest crisis
Why, you may ask?
Most of them believe, as I do, that things need to change. And in order for that to happen, we have to change. As human beings, I mean. We currently just don’t have the capacity to deal with the lightening-speed (certainly in world-history terms) that we are destroying other life on our planet, and the planet itself.
The world, as we know, it is fast-reaching a crisis point. Possible destruction of the insect population, a huge increase in animal extinction, and worse still, only about 25 years left of precious soil that will be of good enough quality to grow our valuable nutritious fruit and vegetables. I’m talking about climate change. Or more aptly described as climate crisis. The government won’t use that term though, as they think it will frighten us too much. And whilst news last week about the Italian olive harvest falling by 57% as a result of climate change, won’t cause too much fear, this is just the tip of a very big iceberg that is quietly lying beneath us all, waiting to surface.
In a very short space of time, we’ve near-enough destroyed the planet we inhabit. How we got here, nobody really knows, but we are badly-behaved guests that before long will have outstayed our welcome. And yet we are so busy, or perhaps too apathetic, or too fearful, that our thinking has become narrowed and skewed. Our heads are down. You only need to look around on the Tube — or any Saturday morning at the swimming pool, to see Dads who are supposed to be watching their toddlers learn to swim, yet instead prefer to catch up on their texting, missing the cries for attention and encouragement. We bury our heads in the sand and hope that someone else out there will come up with an answer to all our problems. Some think it’s just not their problem, others just feel too small, too helpless to contribute.
One thing’s for sure. The fear around climate change will certainly increase over the coming years and we’re going to need to ways of not only dealing with this, but more importantly, to act and find solutions.
Creative problem-solving (or is it?)
The reason for writing this article is that solutions to our problems is a topic I have long been thinking about. It began when I first learned that many founders (and probably senior staff) of innovative start-ups in Silicon Valley regularly micro-dose on magic mushrooms in order to elevate their thinking and get creative. Steve Jobs apparently attributed much of his creative thinking to a phase of taking acid (not something I recommend at all, and not what this article is suggesting). Elon Musk apparently does the mushroom micro-dose thing. Yet this area is filled with problems and often leads people down the wrong path. Perhaps it’s a little like politics. You start with great intentions, but somewhere along the way things take a wrong turn or just want to squeeze it into your busy schedule. Take what’s recently happened to Elon Musk, for example. Smoking a joint whilst tweeting messages that almost brought down his company. Altered states are so easy to get wrong.
And so, I went to a talk recently on this topic. It was given by Christa Mackinnon who trains staff at Exeter University in trauma therapy and hosted by an organisation centred around discussing these kinds of things, called Conscious Café. Christa believes that in order to survive as a race we need to expand our consciousness by working in the right way with altered states.
An innate longing to escape
The question raised during the talk, was
Do we all have an innate longing to escape?
And if so, why?
I love that question. It blows my mind.
Every generation finds a way to, what is in effect, a way to get ‘out of our brain’. Children easily go into, and are often in, an altered brain state. You see them get totally absorbed in play and creation, so much so that an earthquake could be happening next to them and they wouldn’t notice. But over the years, post 6 usually, as adults, we’ve usually knocked this out of them. We tell them to stop staring out of the window, or to pay attention. The forceful or subliminal messaging repeated over time sends them a clear message — that it’s not good to be that way. So, they ‘grow out of it’.
Or do they?
Why do we want to escape?
Of course, it’s not applicable to all, but often as we hit our teenage years, many of us ‘rebel’ in some shape or form. Why? We’re looking for ways to ‘escape’. And it’s this that fascinates me — what exactly are we looking to escape from?
Of course, at that stage it’s often parents. Or difficult feelings. In fact, don’t most of us spend most of our lives trying to escape, or avoid ourselves? Escape our thoughts and the emotions that arise from our fears.
It’s too simplistic to say that it’s the only reason we do it, but in the West, we usually turn to alcohol when we want a quick and easy release from the stresses of life. We may be bored, or living in fear, or depressed, or just looking for a fun night out with friends. Either way, alcohol is a quick and easy way for us to enter into an altered state. We just don’t think of it quite like that when we’re doing it. Then, depending on the amount of escapism required, it may progress on to different types of peer-acceptable drugs.
But this type of altered state deadens our senses, may make us aggressive, out of control or even just fun to be around. Either way, we are of no use to society, or ourselves, in this type of altered state. We’re not going to shift our awareness or, dare I say the word — our consciousness. This is not going to make us creative geniuses. And it’s extremely unlikely to help us find answers to problems.
So what is a Positive Altered State?
So how about this. Instead of condemning the notion of altered states, or dismissing them as weak (which is due to a simple misunderstanding of lumping all types of altered states in together) we start to look at this idea with fresh eyes. What if we all made an effort to understand it more and it began to use it as a way to change who we are for the better?
Below I have listed various vehicles most commonly known for getting us into a positive altered state. We came up with these in our session, but feel free to add more options of your own in the comments box, as it’s helpful to get you thinking about this. Some are more powerful than others and even if you’ve never tried many of them, you’ll likely have an idea which is which
- Listening to music that inspires you/lifts you up
- Being still or walking in nature
- Being creative
- Some forms of yoga
- The Wim Hof Method
- Sex (orgasm)
- Singing in the shower
- Being in a floatation tank
- Shamanic journeys
- Native ceremonies
- Being at a funeral
- Being in a traumatic accident
- Having an illness/fever
And whilst the three at the end may not strike you immediately as ‘positive’, they can result in lightbulb moments which shake you up and change you for the better.
Less Positive Altered States
Whilst we’ve spoken about less positive states above, just for the purposes of this exercise, here are a few more to get you thinking
- Mind control (spiritual/church leaders)
- Tools used for disassociation
- Methods for escaping reality
Measuring and types of Brain States
Over the last decade it’s been possible to measure brain states using fMRI scans. They provide data which shows that when we’re in an altered state, such as meditating. The Dalai Lama and monks, for example, have been the subject of many experiments to test these:
Beta (12–30Hz): Beta brain waves are associated with normal awake time and a heightened state of alertness, logic and critical reasoning. As you go about your daily activities you are at Beta. Although important for effectively functioning in everyday life, higher Beta levels translate into stress, anxiety and restlessness. With the majority of people primarily operating at Beta during their waking hours, it is easy to understand how stress is today’s most common health problem. The voice of Beta is the little nagging chatterbox of your inner critic, which becomes louder and more relentless and higher you go in the range.
Alpha (7.5–12Hz): Alpha brain waves are present in deep relaxation with the eyes usually closed and whilst day-dreaming. The relaxed detached awareness achieved during light meditation is characteristic of Alpha and is optimal for programming your mind for success. Alpha heightens your imagination, visualisation, memory, learning and concentration. It lies at the base of your conscious awareness and is the gateway to your subconscious mind. The renowned Silva Method by Jose Silva is premised on the power of Alpha. The voice of Alpha is your intuition, which becomes clearer and more profound the closer you get to 7.5Hz. Try not to switch off here, it’s important you get comfortable with these terms)
Theta (4–7.5Hz): Theta brain waves are present during deep meditation and light sleep, including the REM dream state. Theta is the realm of your subconscious mind. It is also known as the twilight state as it is normally only momentarily experienced as you drift off to sleep (from Alpha) and arise from deep sleep (from Delta). A sense of deep spiritual connection can be experienced at Theta. Vivid visualizations, great inspiration, profound creativity, exceptional insight as well as your mind’s most deep-seated programs are all at Theta. The voice of Theta is silence.
Delta (0.5–4Hz): The Delta frequency is the slowest and is present in deep, dreamless sleep and in very deep, transcendental meditation where awareness is completely detached. Delta is the realm of your unconscious mind. It is the gateway to the collective unconscious whereby information received is otherwise unavailable at the conscious level. Delta is associated with deep healing and regeneration, underlining the importance of deep sleep to the healing process.
The Alpha-Theta border, from 7 to 8Hz, is the optimal range for visualization, mind programming and using the creative power of your mind. It is the mental state at which you consciously create your reality. At this frequency of mind control you are conscious of your surroundings but your body is in deep relaxation. To learn how to access this level of mind at will you must first learn how to relax.
Gamma (30–100Hz): The most recently discovered range is Gamma which is the fastest in frequency at above 40Hz (some researchers do not distinguish Beta from Gamma waves). Although little is known about this state of mind, initial research shows Gamma waves are associated with bursts of insight and high-level information processing.
The Evolving Human
My personal belief is that we are here to learn, experience and grow. Grow towards being a more enlightened individual who acts in a way that is highly beneficial to themselves, each other and to the planet/environment. I believe we were once like this, but somewhere along the way, we got a bit lost and a little disconnected. Whilst we have made significant breakthroughs and invented incredible things, we got out of sync. And that needs to change.
The gateway to achieving this is, in part, to practice accessing (positive) altered states.
I have spent the last 18 years or so learning in my spare time, techniques and practices such as yoga, mindfulness and various other methods. And I have to say that whilst I am still very much learning, I have discovered my preferred (and what I find to be the most straightforward method) is breathing. It’s what I recommend to you.
There are many different techniques when it comes to breathing. Most people need to be taught, because over time mostly due to stress, we shallow breathe. I use two methods — sometimes combined, sometimes on their own — depending on the amount of time and discipline I have that day. Once someone has taught you how to breathe properly and how to open up your diaphragm (dancers and singers are, of course, taught this), all you need to do is to sit, back straight on a chair. Arms relaxed and just close your eyes and breathe. The only difficultly is that to really benefit, you need to do this for at least 20 mins, but ideally an hour. It feels incredible and you’ll wonder why you didn’t try it before.
The other, more fast-track method is the one taught by Alan Dolan (see link below). Two breaths in and one quick one out. I actually like to combine the two. If you can use this in conjunction with enough sleep, good eating, enough mind stimulation (learning and experiencing new things) and some exercise, you are on to a winner and you’ll see the difference in yourself pretty quickly.
So, all I ask is that you take five minutes to consider altered states. I hope this article will have encouraged you to try a few methods, and then try a little more. There are no quick solutions here. It takes time to change for the better and it will take time to create more people with the mindset to find answers to all the problems we are about to face. But I promise you this, in the process you will discover true wonders — not only in yourself but in the world around you. And that can’t be a bad idea, can it?
On the history of alcohol consumption
A brilliant read about women and midlife crisis but also relevant to men too I would imagine.
Rise in popularity of micro-dosing on magic mushrooms and other psychedelics
Plant medicines popular with the middle classes ‘waking up’ or wanting to ‘wake up’
To Conscious Café for hosting an excellent talk and significantly to Christa Mackinnon for her thoughts, research, ideas and experience
To Alan Dolan for opening my eyes to the benefits of breath work