In a recent post, I told the story of a young woman who suddenly realized that she was a free agent – an important shift in her consciousness. It was an episode of personal transformation, a private affair.
But sometimes sudden alterations of mind can change the course of
history. I’ll give one big example, the formation of the so-called
Abrahamic religions. In each case, founding moments of these great
historical creations were based on dramatic shifts of consciousness.
(Scientists speaks of “altered” states of consciousness. See Charles
Tart’s groundbreaking anthology: Altered States of Consciousness.)
Take the Hebrew prophets, for example, Amos or Isaiah. The prophets
are called, possessed, driven by and external force, a divine entity.
They are inspired to pour out in poetic language the visions seen when
the “hand of the Lord is upon them”, a metaphor for an altered state.
The prophets of ancient Israel and their inspired castigation of
unconscionable power and their visions of a future humanity and a new
earth were highly expressive of the soul of Judaism. Their prophecies
were the effects of altered states of consciousness.
Muhammad’s extraordinary series of encounters with the Abrahamic
divinity all occurred in a series of disruptive visions and auditions
revolving around the angel Gabriel. Here, at its origins, the birth of
Islam is recounted in the Koran in a series of special prophetic states
of consciousness. The culmination of this adventure of consciousness was
that Gabriel commanded Muhammad to write down what he heard the angel
say. So the primal text of Islam is the product of an illiterate man
inspired by means of a profound altered state of consciousness.
To make the point with Christianity, consider the case of St. Paul.
Scholars agree that Paul of Tarsus was a key figure in the rise of
Christianity, although that was not how it all started. Paul was in fact
on his way to Damascus with the intent of persecuting and perhaps
terrorizing the heretical Jews who were fascinated by, and drawn to
Talk about an interrupted journey, en route to persecute the leaders
of the new sect, Paul hears a voice that questions him, and he suddenly
realizes he’s out of his body, convinced he’s been catapulted to
somewhere in heaven. He is thrown off his horse, and temporarily goes
blind. He picks himself up and continues on to Damascus — a changed man
who has undergone metanoia, an “afterthought”.
And this afterthought, brought on by an out-of-body experience, led
to Paul the tentmaker becoming the foremost apostle of the Christian
“good news” that was spreading in the ancient world – a spectacular
example of a big shift in the consciousness of one man who changed
Of course, many people have out-of-body experiences, but very few
kick-start a new world religion. The context of the psychic excursion
shapes the meaning, as do the personality and the cultural environment.
In an out-of-body experience I had, I was in bed sleeping and the sun
had risen. When I woke up I was out of my body and floating toward the
window. I had slipped into a strange state of dual consciousness,
hovering before the window inside my bedroom, but also outside
the window in space where I could see the trees and rooftops in the
distance. In that state of exhilaration, it felt as I could go anywhere I
wanted – beyond the trees and the rooftops toward points unknown.
But then a frightening thought occurred to me. What if I can’t find
my way back? I felt a wave of fear, my heart began to pound, and
automatically I snapped back into my body. Rather than a flight into
the unknown, I learned a lesson on the fear of transcendence.
Somebody should write the story of the human race from the standpoint
of altered states of consciousness, recounting the range of states and
their infinite effects, the great creative ones as well as the many
private and intimate ones.