Monday, February 1, 2016

History and Altered States of Consciousness

 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 follow, Jesus.

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 history.

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.

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