By Prabhath P January 2003 From quantum physics to telepathy, psycho kinesis and dream states, meditation is finally expanding its horizons to match the evolving consciousness. The question is, will the seeds of this integration fructify into awareness? Unlike the instant high of drugs, meditation integrates the consciousness Even the sacramental might not be the final level since the continuum of consciousness could stretch endlessly An altered state of consciousness is any state that differs significantly from baseline or normal waking consciousness. This waking consciousness is a fragmented stream while deep altered consciousness is characterized by wholeness and unity. An intense altered state can be induced through years of meditative practice or, sometimes, by ingesting chemical substances. All of us have experienced altered consciousness at some time in our lives. In normal life, one may slide into mild altered states while daydreaming, being absorbed in a television programmed, listening to music or, sometimes, through euphoric lovemaking. A growing number of people are now experiencing a variety of non-ordinary states of consciousness. These include near-death experiences, past-life memories, out-of-body travel, intuitive knowledge, telepathy and clairvoyance. It is not outer space but the inner space, which is now the final frontier for exploration. Variety of Altered States Altered states can vary, dreaming being a common one. An interesting variation is lucid dreaming in which the dreamer becomes aware and is able to consciously direct the dream. Hypnotic trance is also a well-known altered state. Trance varies in intensity from light trance to deep somnambulism. Even a surgery can be performed under deep hypnotic trance. This can be induced by any visual, auditory or kinesthetic trigger, which focuses attention. Hypnosis also helps a person recall unconscious memories. But deep trance is different from meditation since it involves a loss of memory of the period of trance. It is believed that in out-of-body travel, the individual explores non-physical realms in what New Agars call the enteric body. In near-death experiences, those who return from the brink of death describe an extraordinary awareness in which they seem to pass through a dark tunnel towards a blinding light. They also claim to experience a rapid review of their own lives in the form of images streaming past. Many sportspersons also acknowledge being in a state called the ‘zone’ where they move effortlessly in flow. Extrasensory phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, intuition and channeling are also supposed to be honed in altered states of awareness. Today, a host of traditional and new techniques are available to induce altered states. Meditation, yoga, tantra, drumming, chanting, ecstatic dance, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, biofeedback, mind-music, electronic brain machines and chemicals among others are in use. Altered states of consciousness captured attention with the emergence of the counter culture in America during the 1960s. The Flower Children introduced psychedelics in the form of LSD that could induce the same effects as a shaman’s magical brew. The sense of being on a voyage into other dimensions, of ‘tripping’, is the essence of a classic psychedelic experience. Users report a psychopharmacological virtual reality similar to the traditional mystical experience where they experience timelessness, non-linear or non-verbal communication and connectedness. The latest addition to this is techno shamanism that uses technological devices to trigger altered states. The meditative awareness of enlightenment that encompasses all states of consciousness could be considered the ultimate altered state. But there is a crucial difference between meditation and the instant high of drugs. Meditation, in spite of difficult transition periods, helps to integrate the expanded consciousness with everyday life and enhances overall well-being. The Spiritual Perspective Ancient spiritual traditions see the universe as the manifestation of an infinite consciousness, which the Hindus call Brahman or Satchidananda, Buddhists the Void, Taoists the Tao, and the Kabalists the Great Unman fest. All mystical traditions have cartographies of various levels of consciousness in their spiritual journey. The Hindu tradition offers diverse explanations of altered and transpersonal consciousness. The tantrum concept of seven centers of psychic energy or chakras and the cosmic energy of kundalini delineates the characteristics of the types of consciousness that correspond to each chakra. In the Vedic system, the transcendental consciousness is known as Turiya, the fourth state, which is different from waking, sleep and dreaming. The Upanishads describe five sheaths of consciousness. In Buddhism, the deepening levels of consciousness are called jhanas. The Dalai Lama, in his conversations with Jean-Claude Carriere, speaks of six levels of consciousness including bodhichitta, the mind of wakefulness. According to him, the subtle mind is the creative principle behind the universe, of which the Buddha Sakyamuni is a manifestation. The Judeo-Christian tradition too has its share of visionary states. The esoteric Judaism of Kabala is the yoga of the West, which uses meditation to unlock the experiences of the Tree of Life. From Moses and Solomon to John the Baptist, there are countless accounts of altered consciousness. Sufism, the mystical heart of Islam, has amassed profound knowledge of consciousness. One famous Sufi map is al-Harawi’s treatise, The Stages of Pilgrims Toward God, which describes the spiritual path from its beginning to the union with the absolute in terms of 10 stages or houses. Shamanism is another universal phenomenon, which can be traced back to the Paleolithic era. Its core belief is that during unusual states of consciousness one can make visionary journeys to other realms where the shaman meets power animals who act as guides. Sri Aurobindo, in his Integral Yoga, made the radical proposition that Brahman is not the ultimate. It is only the beginning of a higher cycle. He wrote about the sacramental consciousness, which integrates infinite dimensions of consciousness and nirvana, thus bridging the traditional dichotomy of spirit and matter. He hinted that even the sacramental might not be the final since the continuum of consciousness could stretch endlessly. The Scientific View The western scientific worldview is incompatible with spirituality. Mystical states and altered consciousness are still dismissed as psychopathological hallucinations. In conventional scientific view, consciousness is a property of the brain. Other reductionists propose a God center in the brain, which can be stimulated artificially to induce mystical states. But with the emergence of an increasing interest in mysticism, even scientists are taking a second look at this long-discarded subject. Brain mapping technologies such as electroencephalography and biofeedback machines have accelerated this change. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California has been at the forefront of consciousness studies. ECG studies show the existence of four brain wave patterns: beta, alpha, theta and delta. Beta waves appear in waking awareness, theta in dreaming and delta in deep sleep. Alpha rhythms, which register at 8-13 Hz, manifest in almost every study of altered states. Alpha’s main feature is a calm, alert and relaxed awareness. Different types of meditation produce different electrical patterns. But advanced meditation has been found to produce all the four waves and an unnamed range around 30-50 Hz. Neurologists attribute the ecstatic states and physical well-being found in mediators to the rush of neurochemicals including the body’s opiates, the endorphins and the ‘joy juices’ such as norepinephrine and dopamine. Meditation also synchronizes the logical left and the creative right hemispheres of the brain, producing experiences of timelessness, interconnectedness and bliss. Whole brain functioning facilitates access to altered states that activate the unused potential of the brain. In psychology, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced the concept of altered awareness as peak experiences. Later, Stanislav Grof pioneered transpersonal psychology to study non-ordinary awareness. His experiments with LSD and accelerated breathing led him to discover “God in the laboratory”. Cutting Edge Theories Most scientific approaches to consciousness see the brain as a computer, with neurons and synapses acting as basic switches, or bits, and consciousness as a novel property of complex computation. But quantum physics opened the door to the frontier where science and spirituality meet with the startling discovery that the consciousness of the observer could affect the outcome of an experiment at the quantum level. Physicist Fritjof Capra’s classic book The Tao of Physics called for a meeting of mysticism and science. There are many theories that take science closer to spirituality. Karl Pribram proposed a holographic model of the brain where the whole is coded in all the parts. The theory of self-organizing dynamic systems considers consciousness as evolving continuously towards higher levels of complex integration. Cutting-edge consciousness research reveals that we are part of an infinite field of consciousness in a participatory universe with which we co-create our reality. Humanity finally seems ready for the marriage of science and spirituality.
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