We can think of our minds as a house with a ground floor and an upper story. The ground floor is busy with everyday preoccupations, attitudes, and experiences. But in the house of our minds there is an upper story, a space where altered, extraordinary, and transcendent forms of experience are encountered.
We learn of the content of the upper story in two ways. What’s ‘above’ us may just break into our lives, and flood our consciousness. We’re forced to confront some transcendent visitor. Individuals are called, possessed, transformed, used, as it were, by an external force and intelligence (examples would be Moses and Joan of Arc.)
But there is another way we on the ground floor of our conscious existence may gain access to our hidden heights. We can get proactive. We can try to break the stranglehold of our “normal” consciousness. We curious humans have always explored ways of transcending the roadblocks to a fuller awareness of life. Magic, religion, philosophy, science, technology—all these are geared to elevating our conscious lives.
To what extent they succeed is a big sprawling question. Here I want to mention something I learned while reading C. Kerenyi’s book, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Dionysos is certainly the god of altered state of consciousness, a god whose function it was to drive us out of our rational, everyday minds. The chief clientele for Dionysian ecstasy were maenads, women with pronounced dispositions toward mania, or sacred madness. These women were transformed as they danced up a mountain in ecstasy to the sound of the flute.
The highly creative ancient Greeks valued the power of mania (madness). Plato believed mania essential to greatness in music, poetry, dance, prophecy, and alas! in love (ta erotika). Nothing could be more opposed to the ethos of consumer-capitalist consciousness! The latter wants us to stay safe in the basement of our everyday mind.
Not so those crazy creative ancient Greeks! Not only did they build great institutions like the tragic festivals in honor of Dionysos and philosophical traditions that cultivated altered mental states, but the Greeks founded the Eleusinian mystery rites that lasted for two thousand years. This was an annual ritual consisting of nine days of fasting and dancing that climaxed with drinking an LSD-like kykeon (brew) designed to induce a vision of Persephone, goddess of the underworld. There are written testimonials with regard to the life-enhancing effects of the Eleusinian experience. The rites of Eleusis were banished by the Catholic appropriators and eliminators of everything in competition with their new state religious identity.
Kerenyi points out that systems of mythology wear out the power of their rites, symbols, and sacred narratives. They no longer deliver as far as the experience of transcendence. When the old myths and rites die out there are some who will turn to “artificial” means to induce the spiritual high that feeds the hungry soul. The danger, he said, was the gradual atrophy of our natural spiritual capacities. The higher effects can be produced by breathing or fasting exercises. Kerenyi observes that the Indians who adopted the Peyote rite did so only in desperation when they were expelled from their land, which was their conduit to the higher powers.
At first I doubted whether you could duplicate the intensities and wonders of certain psychedelic agents. But then I recalled a day I was walking on 8th Street in Greenwich Village. I had been fasting for three days, no food, just water. I stopped suddenly, looked up into the sky, then scanned the traffic and the storefronts and the stream of living persons walking past me. And I said to myself: “My fast has turned into an acid trip.” Any point or place where I directed my attention would begin to swell with meaning and vibrate with feeling. I was astonished. Fasting was as powerful a consciousness enhancer as LSD!
Fasting was an experiment, which at first caused some rumbles and creaks in my stomach, but that soon faded into nothing. It was more a mental than a physical challenge. I kept feeling I was supposed to obey the behests of my stomach. I refused to obey and reveled in sensations of triumph over my lower self! I had the pleasure of discovering I was enjoying an LSD high—without the drug itself! And all I had to do was—not do. Not, in this case, eat anything.
It does seem to me that it’s getting harder and harder to disentangle ourselves from the tentacles of the techno-Leviathan we’re trapped in. We’re being forced into the basement of the human psyche and systematically distracted there, so (they hope) it never occurs to us to think about the view from upstairs. In spite of this, I believe the free spirit in us will revolt against the tyranny of materialism. In the end, we’ll use whatever works to liberate the enormous potentials that the evidence suggests we possess.
One idea the evidence of altered states suggests: the greater and more severe the challenge to our everyday mind, the greater the opening to the higher forces of inner transformation. So, what looks like the worst possible outcome may in fact prove to be the instrument of our liberation. That paradox is amply illustrated by the near-death experience, the worst thing we might fear or anticipate, which, as we know from countless scientific studies, may turn into the most transformative experience of one’s life. It is good to know that such guests live with us in the house of our minds.