Every state of consciousness is an altered state of consciousness. Every bite of food, every change of environment, and everything we do affects how we feel, and how we perceive the world. Chemical reactions in our brain change the way our consciousness functions, even if the change is so subtle so as not to be noticed. There are some methods for deliberately altering our state of consciousness, and often these methods are as old as humanity itself.
I will delve more deeply into each specific mode of access in more focused articles, but for now here is an introduction to some of the methods of brain change that can be used in order to alter our state of consciousness. I will only focus on examples that can be explored for positive growth. Which ones do you recognize?
Meditation has been used for centuries and was first documented in India, around 3000BC. It later became heavily associated with Buddhism; the practice of meditation is fundamental to the religion.
Meditation has recently found its way into scientific, medicinal, and therapeutic environments in the West. The many benefits of this powerful brain change tool are beginning to be taken seriously. Brain scans can now visually demonstrate the brain changes which occur, and meditation has been demonstrated to reduce stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression.
The practice of meditation is a constant journey of self-exploration, which begins with sitting still, not trying to do anything, instead just being. It can help to sit in a relaxed posture, and to gently focus on your own breathing, feeling your chest as it rises and falls, rhythmically, relaxing your thoughts. There is no need to try to do anything during meditation, only to be. Step-by-step meditation guides are available online, in books, and in audio form.
Many other altered states of consciousness are basically techniques to enter a meditative state, or methods of directing the same.
Music and Dance
Music is an expression of emotion, and of feelings unexplainable in words. Finely made music, despite our personal preference, is capable of invoking a journey or a certain energy. Music that lends itself well to inner transformation often oscillates between emotional pain and it’s release into pleasure. Harmony and chaos can be used to create comfort and discomfort respectively, and emotion can be transmitted through tone of voice, even when emitting seemingly illogical speech.
It is possible to take a journey through the mind using music as a tool. By remaining open minded to our choices of music, we can select a wide range, and learn how to use the work of our favorite musicians to provoke responses from within us. We can become more emotionally receptive by listening to music, and we can alter our consciousness with ease.
With music comes dance. This is as true today as it was in tribal societies. Dancing is our simultaneous feeling and expressing of music signals. It also creates sweat and exercise, which release hormones and feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin, leading to drastically altered brain chemistry. Every society across the world knows this, and if you have ever truly let go and danced you will know this too. Some dance music environments are very deliberately designed, in the music, visuals, and atmosphere, to invite brain change and shared experiences.
Psychotherapy is to the West, what meditation is to the East. It is possible to practice psychotherapy informally, without having to have anything “wrong” with you. Psychotherapy is the act of analyzing our thought and behavioral patterns, our past experiences, and our goals, in order to better understand where we stand with ourselves right now. It is best practiced with a trusted love one. When we speak to each other with open hearts, and admit our flaws and weaknesses to another person, we deliver a knockout blow to our ego. Our barriers come tumbling down leaving us in an emotional vulnerable state, open to growth and change. With our ego held at bay by our honest self-analysis, it is possible to make lasting changes in our behavioral patterns.
Dreams provide some our strangest life experiences. Sure we can dismiss them as being a bit of imagination running wild in the night, but more interestingly we could also attribute some measure of reality, or at least function to them. Members of tribes often communicated their dreams to each other every day in order to better understand their collective mind.
A dream diary is a good way to begin to develop dream awareness. When we begin to remember dreams it is possible to learn a lot about our deep mind. Other avenues of dreamwork include sub-conscious problem solving, shared dreaming, and lucid dreaming. At one point I remembered my dreams so vividly that every night was a smooth transition into another world. I have had shared dreams with a lover in which we were able to validate each other’s experiences independently of each other; she even caught me cheating on her in a dream once! I have also solved many problems, received advice off loved ones in dreams.
One of the most powerful, and highly underestimated forces on the planet is sex. Sex is capable of catapulting lovers into the most profound of altered states of consciousness. Sex in this context, is sacred. Tantra is perhaps the path that best describes sex in this way, and encourages those who engage in sex to build up anticipation, and to stay in the moment of love. Western paths of magick encourage sex and its expression for the elevation of consciousness, and the Kundalini energy which is said to lie coiled around the spine, is released when sexual energy is mastered.
Shamans have been beating on drums since the tribal days, and the repetitive rhythm still sends us into a trace now. Any sort of drum will do it, and even tapping on a nearby railing can send us into an altered state of consciousness.
Art and Expression
Many altered states of consciousness arise when we lose ourselves to a moment completely, and become unconcerned with all of our usual pathways of thinking. This can happen during a kiss, a game of ping-pong, or when looking at a painting. When we draw, or write our thoughts, or when we express ourselves through motion or speech, we can enter a natural, but very intense altered state. We can become completely absorbed in the activity, in the art or expression, until the barrier between observer and observed becomes non-existent. Suddenly we are the paintbrush, the paint, and the canvas all at once!
Martial arts are an Eastern path of discipline, which works almost entirely on the body. The practitioner rewires their brain through repeated physical exercise, and brutal regimes of discipline. The result is that first circuit survival signals become re-trained, and the expert loses all fear of survival. I myself have practiced martial arts for many years, and can vouch for the altered states that 50 press ups and a kick in the face can cause. In the East the program is even more extreme.
Prayer, in the non-religious sense, is basically a different tool to access the same meditative state. The repetition of a prayer, or a mantra, quietens down every day thought for long enough to break through into meditation. Instead of concentrating on breathing, the practitioner of prayer concentrates on spoken words, and on their love for their chosen God. The concentration on a higher power, combined with the stillness of the mind, causes an altered state which many then attribute to their given deity. It is my view that the deity is irrelevant, and that the altered state is a result of the action of prayer itself; of the mode of access. Sometimes I pray to Jesus, and the results are fantastic. Do I believe in Jesus? I don’t know. Do I believe in the power of prayer? Yes.
Yoga means union, with God or the higher self. There are many different types of Yoga, and it has been around to inspire spirit for centuries. Some of the well known forms of Yoga involve bodily positions and stretches which help to release blockages and keep a good flow of energy moving around the body. The stretches help the body to be strong and healthy, while the mindful movements induce an altered state of consciousness. The only Yoga I have ever taken part in was a Raja Yoga course, which was a sit down third-eye meditation involving theory for good living, and practice of meditation.
Ritual is a type of magick, and “magick” is loosely used to describe Western occult methods of brain change, and achieving altered perceptions and states. The function of ritual, in this context, is to allow for a safe space for psychic and energetic expression. Members enter “no form,” a void state of meditation where the practitioner aims to empty their being. Each member then finds a point of expression, and plays out a certain energy through unspoken interaction with other people. The interactions between people involved in the ritual become a playground for learning and growth. I have no formal experience of ritual, and only a little informal experience at Pagan tribe nights.
Mind Altering Substances
I am not here to promote or advocate mind altering substances as a way of gaining any sort of spiritual understanding. Having said that they are a very valid way of altering consciousness, and tribes are well known to use plants that have psychedelic effects. We may not be as in tune with nature as we used to be, but we still have a lot of plants knocking about these days that do the job. Synthetic drugs are not recommended. Nature is how nature wants. I can tell you that I have had a little experience with plant-based mind altering substances. For anyone who feels confused by this paragraph I ask you to start to become aware of the effects of coffee and alcohol on the brain; they are commonly used mind alternating substances.
As I mentioned before, meditation is something of a natural state. This is made clear whenever we return to a natural setting for long enough to remember this truth. Nature contains all of the harmonic frequencies of life, and when we sit with them our resonance becomes harmonic too. This is not metaphysical. An easy example is the sound of water, which has an instant effect on our consciousness. If we can manage to forget all about our everyday life, and enjoy being in nature, we will enter an “altered state of consciousness” called peace. It should be our baseline state really.
There are many well disguised methods of meditation, brain change, and altered states, all around us. We have become slightly spiritually adverse so the methods have sometimes had to become more subtle. Take fishing for example, which is practiced by many people, who would scorn at the idea of meditation, but are happy to stare all day at a single point on a body of water, with an awareness akin to that of a monk. Dance raves, such as the psychedelic trance scene, and the festival circuit, provide ordinary folk with magick, with shamanism, and with the beating of a drum that sets all of our souls free. Meditations are available online, guided, and in wide abundance. Binaural beats are another modern brain change technology that synchronizes brain waves on relaxed frequencies, greatly aiding meditation. Self Help Manual has a free online binaural beats generator available here.
All around us are ways of altering our consciousness. Everything we do has some effect on our brain, and so it is our responsibility to become aware of how we are altering ourselves. We must become aware of our lives and how we can change our lifestyles for the better. A good diet and exercise are fundamental to our state of being. We must also refrain from aspects of life that negatively effect our consciousness, like eating unhealthy foods, acting selfishly or nastily, and watching too much television. The more aware of ourselves we become the more we can start to deliberately alter our state of consciousness, to experiment, and to know our bodies and minds.
There are many methods out there for altering our state of consciousness. Often, the decision of which mode of access to use is a case of preference, or of culture. The results of accessing altered states of consciousness are the same, no matter what the method. So it is up to you to choose which methods resonate well with you. It is advisable to experiment, to practice, and create a personal spiritual journey for yourself.