starry-sidebarby Richard Thieme

October 6, 2008

A young man experienced an altered state and emailed to ask about its relationship to orthodox modes of spirituality and religious experience. I thought it might be of value to others who are asking the same question to share my response.

I replied:

I have used all sorts of modalities in my life to discover and ideally integrate various unconscious dimensions of my “Self.” What religions designate as “spiritual tools or techniques” have generally persisted for so many centuries because they work. The tools are woven into the narrative of each religion but the narratives are cultural media that validate them and enable them to be remembered from generation to generation. In short, religious systems, whatever else they may be, are mnemonic devices fused with interpretations of life that provide meaning or the illusion of meaning (choose one), community, and stabilizing fins in rough winds or training wheels for a tyke learning to ride a two-wheeler – pick your metaphor.

The community part is not extraneous. As I note below, wiser companions are well advised. We do this alone, but we cannot do it alone. We need to do it alone, together.

What you described is one attempt to enter a meditative or altered state, to take the train to the alpha wave central station. It sounds as if it sometimes works. The trick with dissociative states (like what I do when the dentist drills without Novocain but I feel little discomfort) is to be able to return to the center of your own psyche. Otherwise, it’s time for a therapist to get to work.

Over the years of my life, I have experienced – prayer, meditation in deeper and deeper states, guided meditations in group contexts (sometimes human potential movements and sometimes Buddhist and Christian communities), automatic writing, mediums, spiritualist trances, self-hypnosis, paranormal games (telepathy, clairvoyance, psychometry), even Ouija boards, in short, many orthodox and non-standard methodologies, and oh yes, the occasional “trip” on a hallucinogen (a recent study suggests that psilocybin delivers a religious experience which is subsequently designated by users as one of the most meaningful religious experience they ever had.. Before taking that trip, however, I suggest a major consult with the erowid web site.)

I don’t recommend fringe activities like automatic writing or Ouija boards. What seem to be discarnate spirits or, these days, space brothers in UFOs, are aspects of self that flick off like floaters in our eyes and lead to dissociated states with no controls. Sometimes the doors back home are blocked by falling debris. That can be frightening and dangerous. In addition, channeling of all kinds generally results in bogus testimonies and simplistic spiritualities, seldom specific but often sharing similar vague descriptions of another plane, another life, or another psychic domain. In Christian terms, the routes they suggest are generally around the cross, i.e. reality. In the spiritual domain, there are detours but no short cuts, and there are definitely no free lunches.

All religious traditions state that these practices must be guided by someone more experienced and for good reason – we are playing with powerful and dangerous fire here and like dynamite it can be used to build or to destroy. “Spiritual guides” – real flesh-and-blood people, I mean, not discarnate entities : – ) – or directors are needed for more than the shallowest waters – and that introduces the additional task of finding a good one. It’s like finding a good financial adviser – track record, maturity, word of mouth, due diligence all apply. Caveat emptor characterizes this marketplace too. Don’t just use the yellow pages. And remember, if you meet the Buddha on the road, shoot him.

The rewards of this journey include hierarchical restructuring of the psyche in ways that include and transcend prior states and deliver spiritual power, and the ability to live with self-mastery, dignity, and resiliency regardless of circumstances. That hard-wired experience is generally contextualized by religious narratives in a particular way – Buddhists experience “a nightmare in daylight,” Christians are “born again,” etc. – but the pluralism of interpretations relativizes them all and suggests an innate predisposition to transformation or conversion that is prior to any story.

The downsides include the trip being interrupted, which secular analysts unfortunately diagnose as mental illness instead of a detour, and of course, grandiosity and inflation of the ego. Think of Alice in Wonderland eating the wafer and growing real big. That’s ego inflation. Then think of Alice eating another and getting real small. That’s humility.

Humility is better.

In the end, one discovers that these practices all lead to diminishing self importance, a manageable and appropriately sized ego, and more surpassing joy in living life than one dares to dream.

It sounds to me like it’s worth it.

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